Rubbing shoulders with role models
“Contacts are absolutely critical to getting anywhere,” alleged Professor Sir Mark Pepys, during an inspiring keynote speech at the recent Chain-Florey workshop at the CSC on Thursday 3rd October. Recruited as the first of ten academic ‘superstars’ by GlaxoSmithKline, Pepys doesn’t shy away from wining and dining big Pharma to achieve his therapeutic goals. Despite having had to battle with both academic funders and commercial companies to keep his programmes alive, so that potential benefits for patients can be explored, he remains undaunted.
His UCL-spin out company Pentraxin Therapeutics is dedicated to finding and developing new treatments for systemic amyloidosis, a goal he hopes is only a few years away. Pepys points out that investing in drug discovery for rare diseases could yield benefits for common disorders, which in the case of amyloidosis includes Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes. In his opinion, the pharmaceutical giants are now willing to invest in drug development for rare diseases for that reason. He highlighted GSK’s Academic Discovery Performance Unit and their Discovery Partnerships as examples of industry’s desire to collaborate with academia. In his case the programmes licensed to GSK all sprang from his 40 years of MRC support.
The keynote talk followed a panel discussion chaired by current fellow, Andrew Innes, featuring Professors Hugh Pelham, David Taube, Jenny Higham, Terence Stephenson, David Lomas, Keith Peters and Mark Pepys. Everyone agreed that ideas need to become a clinical reality more quickly than has formerly been the case. Hugh Pelham (LMB Director) praised the move by AstraZeneca to geographically relocate beside the Laboratory for Molecular Biology in Cambridge. “This will allow researchers to ‘taste’ industry without jumping ship,” he added.
Three Chain-Florey fellows presented their projects prior to the discussion. Antonio de Marvao (CMR Genetics and Integrative Genomics and Medicine Groups) introduced his population level genotype-phenotype model of the human heart. He compared 2D and 3D methods for scanning the human heart and found the latter by far the most accurate means of visualisation. Antonio is scanning 1500 healthy volunteers to build a heart atlas, which will map phenotypic to genotypic variations, allowing clinicians to better understand the hardwiring of disease phenotypes.
James Tomlinson, who recently completed his PhD in the Nitric Oxide Signalling Group, summarised the key findings of his project. He is interested in reducing population morbidity as a result of the extremely common yet slowly progressive chronic kidney disease (CKD), which currently accounts for 2% of the total annual NHS budget. During his project he discovered that mice, which cannot make DDAH (dimethylarginine dimethylaminohydrolase) – an enzyme involved in nitric oxide signalling, are protected against renal fibrosis. Adding weight to the group’s findings is the recent discovery that human patients with higher DDAH1 expression show a greater extent of renal decline.
The seminar’s introductory talk was given by Tom Oates, who recently completed his PhD in the Integrative Genomics and Medicine Group. Looking at global DNA methylation in a rat model of crescentic glomerulonephritis, he found lower levels of these epigenetic tags than were evident in a healthy rat strain. Furthermore, treating the diseased rats with a methylation inhibitor proved to be successful in reducing the pathological markers of disease (crescent-shaped bodies that appear in histological kidney sections).
All three talks highlighted how the Chain-Florey fellowship scheme is helping to foster talent that will drive clinical academic research forward in the future. As scheme advocate, Jonathan Weber pointed out in his introduction to the workshop, “the Chain-Florey fellowships have already encouraged similar initiatives in Edinburgh and other universities.” Academic mentor, Irene Roberts, added at the end of the session, “we don’t know if this Chain-Florey experiment will work, but bringing scientific thinking into patient management is likely to bring great benefit.”
The Chain-Florey Workshop was organised by current fellows: Phil Webster (Cancer Genomics Group), Eleanor Sandhu (Neurophysiology and Metabolic Signalling Groups) and Andrew Innes (Cell Proliferation Group)
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