Developing a million-pound drug habitat

February 19, 1999

Snakebites, male contraception and malaria are all on the agenda at Strathclyde University's purpose-built drugs unit, reports Olga Wojtas

Although dug researchers at Strathclyde University have always tried to take an interdisciplinary approach to their work, collaboration has often been hampered by their being scattered across seven floors of a rambling Edwardian building.

But after ten years of effort, the departments of immunology, pharmaceutical sciences and physiology and pharmacology are today housed alongside one another in the purpose-built Strathclyde Institute for Biomedical Sciences.

"It will definitely improve communications and it makes interdisciplinary collaboration much easier,'' says Alan Harvey, director of the Strathclyde Institute for Drug Research.

The multimillion-pound SIBS project involved a painstaking accumulation of funds from charity, Europe, property sales, university reserves and, appropriately, royalties from one of Strathclyde's discoveries, Atracurium. The molecule, which is the active ingredient of this muscle relaxant drug widely used by surgeons and anaesthetists, was designed and synthesised by John Stenlake and his team.

Strathclyde is one of the United Kingdom's leading centres for drug research: drug discovery accounts for the vast bulk of the Pounds 25 million the university has earned in royalties over the last decade. Last year, Professor Harvey visited San Diego on a biotechnology mission and was told that the 140 local biotechnology companies were doing very well, having won two product approvals. As he says: "Our university alone has got four products on the market, and there are five or six medical products on the world market that have a strong connection with Strathclyde drug research."

The university does not carry out all the processes necessary to transform a discovery into a medical product: the costs involved for a single invention can be Pounds 200 million. But it has expertise in designing, analysing and standardising new chemicals, investigating their potential effects on the body and devising the most appropriate way to deliver each drug.

It is building itself up as a centre for drug development and small-scale manufacture, researching natural substances. It has a library of more than 3,500 plant species and Professor Harvey is working with Nigerian researcher Isaac Asuzu on a cheap and effective antidote for snakebites.

In many parts of the developing world, snakebites prove fatal because anti-venom treatments are either too expensive or too difficult to store to ensure they are fully effective in an emergency.

Professor Asuzu, a professor of plant chemistry at the University of Nigeria, has collaborated with traditional healers who treat snakebites with extracts of local plants and has now brought samples to Strathclyde for investigation. The project, sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, has shown that four of the samples protect against the effect of snake venom on blood vessels and nerve cells. "We are continuing our work to define the active ingredients in the plant extract and to demonstrate their stability," Professor Harvey says.

"Traditional remedies are very effective in some areas, but they are frequently extremely localised. This means that a snakebite victim in another developing country, or even another part of the country where there is an effective indigenous antidote, will not be able to obtain that treatment. We hope that the project at SIBS will lead to cheap and effective remedies that can be made widely available in Africa.'' The pharmaceutical industry has given SIBS practical support. Parke Davis, part of Warner Lambert Pharmaceuticals, has equipped the main lecture theatre and funded a teaching post, while Boots has set up a chair in pharmaceutical care and Pfizer has funded a chair in exploratory drug delivery. Howard Stevens, holder of the Pfizer chair, is investigating new ways of using drugs already in existence.

"With many older drugs, you eliminate them from the body very fast, so you have to take them two, or four, or six times a day. If it is morning and evening, it is easy to remember to take them, but if it is in the middle of a busy working day, there is no convenient trigger,'' he says.

"One of the first developments in drug delivery was to change the rate of release in the body so that you can put more of the drug in a single capsule and reduce the dosing frequency."

Professor Stevens has patented an "intelligent capsule" containing a plug that dissolves at a predetermined rate in a bid to combat the body clock. Asthma attacks, for example, predominantly take place at night, while the first hours after waking are a danger period for fatal heart attacks. The aim is to deliver lower doses of drugs at the right time rather than treating the patient 24 hours a day.

"For example, we tend to swamp people with arthritis with large doses of anti-inflammatory drugs, but here we are looking at using smaller doses of the drug at the time the patient needs it," Professor Stevens says.

Other SIBS research includes a liquid gel that could be swallowed to combat heartburn, weedkiller as a potential treatment for malaria and a contraceptive vaccine for men. Bill Stimson, head of immunology, believes there is the prospect of a vaccine that could be injected annually and would not affect libido. He believes an annual vaccine would be much more popular than a male contraceptive pill. "It is difficult to believe that any woman of childbearing age would trust a man to take a daily pill," he says.

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