University of Dundee

Accelerating drug discovery through exemplary academic-pharma collaboration

Since 2001, 27 new drugs that target kinases have been approved for clinical use with current sales of US$30 billion. The development of these drugs depended on the kinase profiling methods developed by the University of Dundee. By harnessing this world-class research in a unique collaboration between the University and world leading pharmaceutical companies, the entrepreneurial vision of Sir Philip Cohen maximised the translation of signalling research in Dundee towards clinical benefit. 

Most aspects of cellular life, such as immune responses, the decoding of genes and the control of metabolism are regulated by the attachment and removal of phosphate from proteins which is performed by enzymes called kinases and phosphatases. Abnormalities in this process, cause many diseases, such as arthritis, cancer, hypertension, lupus and Parkinson’s disease. A major challenge in this area is to develop drugs that suppress the activity of one, or at most a few, of the 500 kinases encoded by the human genome.

Pioneering research at the University of Dundee led by Professor Sir Philip Cohen FRS FRSE, developed the first systematic assays to analyse the selectivity of kinase inhibitors, which,has proved crucial for the development of new therapeutic drugs targeting kinases. This procedure, termed "kinase profiling" greatly helped the pharmaceutical industry causing kinases to become their most important class of drug target., Kinase drug discovery accounted for 30% of industry’s total R&D budget and over 50% of global cancer drug discovery. In 2013 over 25 kinase inhibitors were undergoing Phase III clinical trials. 

In 1998, Sir Philip and Professor Pete Downes OBE FRSE FMedSci (now University Principal) together set up the Division of Signal Transduction Therapy, a unique collaboration between academic researchers and the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies. The aim was to initiate and accelerate the development of potent and specific drugs that modulate kinases and phosphatases for the treatment of disease. A further aim was to develop research tools for academic scientists to understand the regulation of normal cell functions. The consortium is now entering its 17th year and is one of the largest and longest running collaborations between academia and the pharmaceutical industry.

Pharmaceutical companies (currently AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck-Serono, Pfizer and Janssen Pharmaceutica NV) have made a significant investment in the consortium and in return benefit from access to unpublished results, technology, know-how and reagents in the participating academic laboratories, and have first rights to license intellectual property generated. The integration of expertise in protein ubiquitylation in 2012 was of particular interest to the corporate partners.

A key ingredient to the success of the consortium has been the critical mass of leading academic researchers prepared to work together under a binding legal agreement in a field of industrial interest. This type of collaboration is vital for the development of new treatments, that bring benefits for patients and the economy.