Mention fluoride and most people think of toothpaste. But flourine turns up in lots of places including in well-known drugs such as the cholesterol lowering, Lipitor, and the anti-depressant Prozac. Roughly 23% of drugs currently available contain at least one atom of fluorine. The element is included because it has a beneficial impact on how a drug performs.
Incorporating fluorine into a drug using classical organic chemistry can be challenging. The element is highly reactive and generates by products that must be properly disposed of. Consequently, the costs of producing fluorinated drugs are often high.
Dr. Cormac Murphy of the UCD Earth Institute and School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science is an expert in fluorine biochemistry. One of his key research areas is developing a natural method of producing fluorine-containing antibiotics in bacteria by manipulating the culturing conditions. This research caught the attention of Aberdeen-based biotechnology company, NovaBiotics, three years ago and a collaboration, jointly funded by the company and the Irish Research Council Enterprise Partnership Scheme, began.
“Flourine has some very unusual properties and when conveyed onto a drug molecule it can ultimately improve the potency of a drug. This is very difficult to do biologically as fluorine is a tricky element to manage in a laboratory setting,” Cormac Murphy says. “However, we have successfully achieved this and have now reached the point where NovaBiotics will be able to assess the outcome in their own test setting.
“Working with NovaBiotics has given us an insight into how our research can support the needs of industry and such interactions also provide PhD students with great experience in a commercial setting,” adds Murphy who is part of the Marie Curie Initial Training Network initiative which has recently been awarded significant EU funding to develop new chemical and biological methodologies for the production of commercially important fluorinated chemicals.
NovaBiotics was founded in 2004 by Dr. Deborah O’Neil and the company uses natural sources as the development template for its pioneering antimicrobial peptide therapies. Its patented anti-infective technology has already led to the successful development of Novexatin®, a topical treatment for fungal nail infections. The company is also developing drug candidates for conditions such as life threatening blood stream fungal infections and cystic fibrosis.
“We are strongly committed to collaboration with academic groups as such interactions are often the first step towards developing great technologies,” Deborah O’Neil says. “The particular research focus of the UCD group was a very nice fit with what we do at NovaBiotics. We were already looking at developing a new class of anti-fungals and were very happy to link up with UCD to support this research. There were also skills available at the Institute that were distinct and complementary to our own and this is a very good way for an SME to get the most out of this sort of R&D investment.”
NovaBiotics develops and trials new drugs to mid-clinical stage and having a pipeline of potential new therapies is essential. O’Neil says tapping into the knowledge base of tertiary academic centres is vitally important in keeping the company abreast of emerging technologies.
“It’s about gaining access to know-how and bright new ideas but also about training commercial researchers of the future as we tend to work very closely with PhD students as was the case with the UCD collaboration,” she says.
“We found the process of working with UCD very easy and worthwhile. We were in regular contact and liaising virtually worked very well. PhD projects by their nature tend to throw up issues that couldn’t have been foreseen and as things emerged we were able to rethink some aspects of which molecules we would be testing. For us the end result of a drug discovery/development project is about whether or not what we’re trying to do is feasible on a commercial scale. Often a “no” as to whether the theory of drug modification can work practically is as valuable as a “yes,” O’Neill says.
“There were also skills available at the Institute that were distinct and complementary to our own and this is a very good way for an SME to get the most out of this sort of R&D investment.”