Europe-wide drug discovery program announced

A robot used for drug target screening (source: Josh Baxt, Conrad Prebys Center for Chemical Genomics)

A robot used for drug target screening
(source: J. Baxt, Conrad Prebys Center for Chemical Genomics)

A major new European initiative bringing together over 30 international partners, including pharmaceutical companies, was announced on February 7th, 2013. The initiative will screen over the course of five years over 500 000 substances, with the objective of performing follow-up studies on any potential new drugs in collaboration with select project participants, including public organizations and small and medium enterprises. The public-private consortium, called European Lead Factory, was sponsored by the EU’s Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), and by Bayer Health Care and six other members of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA).

Of the 500 000 substances, 300 000 will come from EFPIA members, while the other 200 000 will be developed by academia and by small and medium enterprises. The collection of these compounds – to be named Joint European Compound Collection – will be accessible only to project partners and EU organizations involved in the drug discovery screening. The consortium will consider applications from any organization interested in further development of any of the compounds. Funding for the initiative will total nearly €200 million EUR, with the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme contributing €80 million EUR.

The initial phases of the screening will take place in two labs formerly belonging to Merck in Scotland and in the Netherlands, which have been re-purposed with robots for high-throughput screening of the library of compounds. Screening assay development will take place at Oss in the Netherlands, while follow-up work will be done at BioCity Scotland, in partnership with the University of Dundee and the Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance (SULSA). IMI provided £16.3 million GBP of funding to this part of the project, while the Scottish government provided £3.5 million GBP. Netherlands-based non-profit organization Top Institute Pharma will head the screening efforts, while Taros Chemicals will oversee the chemistry part of the project. Bayer Health Care will provide overall coordination of the initiative.

A similar library of compounds was created in 2003 by the US National Institutes of Health to provide public sector researchers access to large-scale screening capacity, by tapping into a national network of centers that would help identify small molecules to be used as chemical probes. The Molecular Libraries Program (MLP) and its associated Molecular Libraries Screening Centers Network was expanded in 2008 to include nine large screening centers, among which are the NIH Chemical Genomics Center, the Broad Institute Comprehensive Screening Center, and the Sanford Burnham Center for Chemical Genomics. Funding for the MLP, originally $100 million USD a year, will run out by 2014.

Unlike the European consortium, the 400 000 compound library generated by the MLP was intended to be made publicly available from the start, along with annotated information on the biological activities of these compounds. More than 240 probes were produced, with one, an agonist of the sphingosine-1-phosphate receptor 1 (S1P1), currently in Phase I trials as a potential treatment for multiple sclerosis. Further development of the probe was performed by the Scripps Research Institute, where the probe was discovered, and by Receptos, Inc. This sort of early-stage drug target identification differs from the model adopted by the European Lead Factory consortium, which instead aims at developing new drugs by providing exclusive licensing deals of any potential leads to be taken into drug development pipelines by pharmaceutical companies.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health recently renewed its focus on drug development by forming a new translational science center on the Bethesda campus on January 4th, 2012, called the National Center for Advancing Translational Science (NCATS). The mission of this new center, which was created by dissolving the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) and incorporating the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA), is to accelerate development of new drugs, devices, and diagnostics. The center received $30.7 billion USD in funding in 2011, and will provide institutional support to the NIH Chemical Genomics Center. Other screening centers that participated in the MLP have been invited to find other NIH-funded support. Many in the research community fear that once the funding runs out, the small molecule library will cease to exist as a single accessible entity.

This post was written by:

Stefano Iantorno Stefano Iantorno View author bio

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