Dr Quentin Bickle, Reader in Parasite Immunology at the School, has been awarded £1.5 million of funding through the Biomedical Catalyst programme for a project to identify a new drug to treat schistosomiasis.
Jointly managed by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and the Medical Research Council (MRC), Biomedical Catalyst is an £180 million programme supporting the translation of ideas from concept to commercialisation. Awards are currently being made to 43 small and medium-sized businesses and eight universities.
Schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia) is an infection caused by parasitic worms transmitted through fresh water snails. There are an estimated 250 million cases of schistosomiasis in various tropical countries and, if left untreated, the disease can cause progressive damage to various organs. Treatment currently relies on a single drug, praziquantel (PZQ). However, this treatment has a number of drawbacks: PZQ kills the adult worms but not developing juvenile stages; its increasing use in mass treatment campaigns combined with reports of treatment failure have raised concerns over emergence of drug resistance; the large dose required can result in choking among infants.
The funded project aims to develop a clinical candidate that is more effective than PZQ, primarily in treating all stages of the parasitic worm. The School will collaborate on the project with Salvensis, a not-for-profit organisation with over 50 years experience in medicinal chemistry applied to drug discovery in the pharmaceutical industry. The Biomedical Catalyst funding will help bridge the gap between academia and pharma in this area of neglected tropical disease drug discovery.
Dr Bickle said: “With recent funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation we have developed a high-throughput, in vitro, whole-organism screen to identify compounds able to kill schistosomes.
“The screen is centred on the use of a high content screening camera to rapidly capture high resolution images of schistosome larvae. Time-lapse imaging allows us to measure worm motility and image analysis software we have developed quantitates damage to the worms based on characteristics such as granularity, shape, pixel intensity etc. This automated image analysis combined with robotic integration means that, for the first time, we are able to test hundreds of thousands of compounds, from the vast compound collections available from pharma and academic institutions, for activity against parasitic worms.
“The new MRC funding allows us to embark on this hit discovery phase and, crucially, supports development of promising leads into clinical candidates using medicinal chemistry which we hope will yield improved drugs for clinical use.”
Image: Schistosome larvae captured by the high content screening camera Credit: Ross Paveley