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Issued: Fri, 09 Nov 2012 11:14:00 GMT
New technology created by a University spin-out company is expected to save the pharmaceutical industry millions of pounds and speed up the process of finding effective medications for patients.
From the people who need them to the companies that create them, everyone wants to know that the medicines we use are safe. That's why, before a drug can be licensed for human use, it must undergo testing to make sure it can have no detrimental effects on electrical activity within the cells of the heart. But what many patients might not know is how expensive and time-consuming this process of testing is.
Glasgow's latest spin-out company, Clyde Biosciences, aims to address this issue. The company has created a testing platform called CellOPTIQ that can identify compounds not suitable as potential drugs because of their negative impact on the heart.
Dr Margaret Anne Craig, a former researcher at the University and the company's director, explains the problems the pharmaceutical industry faces: 'Normally, a company screens between five and ten thousand compounds before, ten to twelve years later, they've got one drug,' she says. 'It can cost more than $1bn to do that. When drugs go through the process, about 40% fail in the very late clinical trial stage because of cardiac toxicity, which can cause arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death.'
The cost of inadequate testing was illustrated in 2004 when pharmaceutical company Merck withdrew the drug Vioxx after mounting evidence that it increased the risk of heart attack in users. Many of those who were given the drug subsequently sued the company.
The CellOPTIQ platform involves testing heart cells in solutions of the drug to be investigated. 'Our system produces more information and is both cheaper and easier to use than all the existing techniques,' explains Dr Craig. 'Normally, testing like this would have to be done by a highly skilled postdoctoral researcher; they could be getting their results from two or three cells in a day, from one drug concentration. But this platform is designed to produce a lot more data from a range of cell types and can be done by a technician.'
The technology is based on collaborative research that cuts across biomedical sciences and engineering disciplines at the University.
Professor Godfrey Smith is an expert in cardiovascular physiology. His research allows CellOPTIQ to record measurements on multiple adult heart cells, under differing conditions, simultaneously.
'My research developed around the use of a dye that signals electrical activity,' he explains. 'With this I can image whole hearts, sections of the heart and single cells. It's completely non-invasive and very useful in trying to work out abnormalities. It was reasonably natural for me then to think of applying that knowledge to a format which industry would consider useful.'
Any abnormal changes in cellular electrical activity caused by the presence of drug concentrations in the solutions surrounding the heart cells can be made in real time. Research by Dr Francis Burton, a research technologist in cardiovascular sciences, is used to record these changes.
'As an academic, you know exactly how you want a piece of research conducted and how you want the measurements to be made, so you write a piece of software to do it,' says Professor Smith. 'That program can then be used in a repetitive way to make quite advanced measurements. Dr Burton does this really well; his programs are very advanced and easy to use.'
Now that the technology has been built, it will benefit the research lab that led to its creation by forming a knowledge-exchange partnership.
'What excites me in the future is having Clyde Biosciences working in collaboration with my basic science lab. I think that's a fantastic environment to generate further discoveries,' says Professor Smith. 'There's research I can do on basic cell mechanisms and drug-induced effects which I couldn't do in the past because it would have been too time-consuming.'
It's a rewarding end to a story that began more than a decade ago when a research partnership with Professor of Biomedical Engineering Jon Cooper first prompted Professor Smith to look at the potential for commercialisation. Successive conversations with industry were required to identify how the research could solve a real need in drug compound testing. Bringing together knowledge of instrument design, methods for measuring biological activity and software programming eventually led to the creation of the CellOPTIQ platform.
For Professor Cooper, these partnerships are important to industry, the University and society at large. 'As academics, we are publicly funded and, therefore, have a responsibility to explore routes by which our research can benefit society and the economy,' he says. 'For example, by forming companies we create jobs in the local economy while, at the same time, we are providing new tools to improve the process by which we discover new medicines. Interestingly, by doing this, we also show the future generation of students how an academic career in science and engineering can lead to wealth creation, innovation and entrepreneurship.'
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