The chance discovery of a protein fragment that prevents the excessive growth of new blood vessels has won two female scientists one of Sheffield University's most lucrative commercial deals.
The multimillion-pound agreement with Swiss pharmaceuticals giant Novartis will seek new treatments for a host of diseases such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.
These conditions all depend on a process called angiogenesis - the rapid production of capillaries that supply abnormal tissue with oxygen and nutrients. In cancer, it also allows tumour cells to escape into the blood stream and spread through the body.
Claire Lewis, professor of molecular and cellular pathology, led research into the clot-forming protein fibrinogen that uncovered the fragment last year.
The discovery that a tiny fragment of this huge molecule could stop angiogenesis in its tracks was completely unexpected.
To control angiogenesis, a healthy body keeps a balance of different enzymes - growth factors and inhibitors. When growth factors gain the upper hand, the result is a proliferation of new blood vessels, which plays a key role in some 70 diseases.
The scientists realised that the protein fragment, which they have called alpha statin, was a particularly potent inhibitor of the process. This held out the possibility that it could be developed into a drug capable of tackling conditions that involved angiogenesis, including preventing the fatal spread of cancer.
"Alpha statin specifically affects only those blood vessels that are rapidly growing in disease tissues - ordinary blood vessels are invisible to it," Professor Lewis said.
She put her whole team onto the project and brought in colleague Nicola Brown, reader in the department of surgery, to explore its potential.
The two scientists formed the spin-off company BioActa in February to exploit the science under an exclusive licence. Last week, the firm signed a collaborative research and licence agreement with Novartis.
Novartis will provide an undisclosed sum - thought to be more than £1 million - for the Sheffield scientists to investigate novel therapies for the treatment of angiogenesis-related diseases. Novartis is also investing in BioActa and will pay the company royalties on sales of final products.
A lot will depend on how an alpha statin drug can be absorbed by the body. Professor Lewis said that as the fragment is a natural component of a common body protein, she does not expect there to be any side-effects.
Robert Boucher, vice-chancellor of Sheffield University, welcomed the deal. "The agreement with Novartis is recognition of the world-class capability of research scientists working in the university and the market relevance of our spin-out companies."
The scientists are now exploring how the fragment works.