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New MS drug development based on WEHI’s research

08 July, 2008

Research conducted at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) has contributed significantly to a major licensing agreement signed between Australian biotechnology company, Bionomics, (ASX:BNO) and Germany-based pharmaceutical company, Merck Serono.

Under the Development and Licensing Agreement, Merck Serono will seek to develop new treatments for multiple sclerosis (MS) and other autoimmune conditions. These prospective treatments will be based upon compounds from Bionomics’ Kv1.3 program, which WEHI had a fundamental role in developing.

The Kv1.3 program has its origins in the late 1990s, when WEHI’s Dr Jonathan Baell and collaborators discovered that certain derivatives of a natural product called khellinone could block a potassium channel called Kv1.3. This potassium channel selectively inhibits autoreactive T cells, such as those that attack the myelin sheath in people with MS.

Dr Baell says, “Our research in this area had a rocky start, but when our first patents were published in 2003, Start-Up Australia approached us with an interest in licensing the intellectual property. This came to fruition in late 2004 through their investee company, Iliad, which was able to resource the medicinal chemistry effort required.”

In 2005, Iliad was acquired by Bionomics, which further accelerated progress with the program.

Dr Baell continues, “There was a great meeting of minds between chemists from WEHI and Bionomics, leading to a significant expansion of the patent portfolio. Bionomics also established an in-house biology platform that effectively serviced the whole program.”

“During the whole process, every scientist at WEHI and Bionomics maintained a focus upon what we were trying to achieve: a treatment for MS, a debilitating disease that is tragically common among young adults. Our progress and achievements to date demonstrate that with intense tenacity and a collaborative approach, academic drug discovery programs can produce great outcomes.”

WEHI’s research achievements were recognised on a national basis by the Royal Australian Chemical Institute with the 2004 Biota Award to Dr Baell for medicinal chemistry and the award of an NHMRC Industry Fellowship to Dr Andrew Harvey, who became an important driver of the program, along with Bionomics’ medicinal chemistry colleagues, Drs Flynn, Chaplin, Paul and Mould.

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