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MRC awards drug resurrection grants

A new effort by the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) and the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to resurrect abandoned drugs made its first award announcements today.

Fifteen lead investigators will receive a total of £7 million pounds over the next four years to repurpose AstraZeneca drugs that were abandoned for strategic reasons, or that had failed against diseases including prostate cancer, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The selected projects will use nine of 22 cast-aside compounds that the drug company made available free of charge when the programme was first announced and applications invited last December.

The awardees hope to redirect the culled drugs to attack diseases ranging from chronic ear infections to Alzheimer’s disease to muscular dystrophy. Six of the projects will test compounds in human subjects; seven will involve only preclinical work; and two will encompass both preclinical and human testing. Here is a full list of the MRC drug repurposing awards, which vary in size from about £300,000 to £800,000. More detail about three of them, which target chronic cough, Alzheimer’s disease, and muscular dystrophy, is provided here.

At least one of the winners credits the drug company for being willing to offer up the compounds. Seth Love, professor of neuropathology at the University of Bristol, received over £500,000 to deploy against Alzheimer’s disease an AstraZeneca drug that resoundingly failed against prostate cancer. “By offering it to the scientific community, something they hadn’t dreamed of as a potential application has been identified. It has just been a win-win situation for everyone,” says Love.

He plans to use the molecule, zibotentan, to demonstrate proof-of-concept in rats, and then, if that is successful, move it into a human trial. The compound selectively blocks the ETA endothelin receptor. Endothelin is a potent blood vessel constrictor, and blocking its action in the brain may help fight the symptoms of Alzheimer ’s disease, in which reduced cerebral blood flow is implicated.

The MRC-AstraZeneca programme drew over 100 expressions of interest after it was announced in December; 23 of those were invited to submit full applications, and the 15 announced today were drawn from among those. Professor Patrick Johnston, Chair of the MRC’s Translational Research Group, declared the applications’ quality to be “higher than we could ever have hoped.”

Nonetheless, the £7 million in funding announced today fell short of the “up to £10 million” that the organizers initially said could be available under the programme.

An MRC spokesperson noted that the initial amount was not “set in stone.” She added: “We’ve had a significant level of interest from other companies in repeating a similar partnership and therefore were prudent in not over-committing to allow sufficient resources for future initiatives.”

In a time of languishing drug industry pipelines, the concept of enlisting academic investigators to turn old, discarded drugs to new uses is gaining a foothold on both sides of the Atlantic. In May, the new translational research centre at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a similar initiative involving three big drug companies, including AstraZeneca. By June, five more pharmaceutical giants had signed on to the programme run by NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. Called ‘Discovering New Therapeutic Uses for Existing Molecules’, it has similarly received scores of expressions of interest (read more about the programme in our recent news story ‘New cures sought from old drugs’). In contrast to the UK programme, US applicants must pursue projects that test drugs in humans. Its first awards will be made in June, 2013.

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