Laser techniques part of $24M European drug discovery project

In efforts to develop more effective, longer lasting medicines, scientists from the University of Nottingham in England are using laser confocal microscopy and fluorescence correlation spectroscopy (FCS) to study in real time how drug molecules ‘stick’ to proteins on the surface of cells in our body in an effort to learn more about how drugs work.

The scientists involved in the work are part of a new $24 million (€18 million) consortium supported by Europe’s Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI; Brussels, Belgium) and major pharmaceutical companies aimed at tackling new drug development. During the course of the five-year project, around $667,150 (€500,000) of that funding will come to Nottingham.

The new consortium, led by pharmaceutical company Bayer HealthCare (Leverkusen, Germany) and Leiden University in The Netherlands and involving a number of universities and SMEs, is entitled Kinetics for Drug Discovery (K4DD) and centers around the recent discovery that the length of time that a drug molecule is bound to proteins in the body may have a direct impact on the effectiveness of the medicine.

The Nottingham scientists, being led by Professor Steve Hill in the University’s School of Biomedical Sciences and involving Dr. Steve Briddon in Biomedical Sciences and Dr. Barrie Kellam in the School of Pharmacy, will be bringing their expertise of fluorescent ligand technology to the project. Their work focuses on G protein-coupled receptors—a group of around 400–500 proteins that are the most targeted group of proteins for current medicines. Around 30% of current medicines target the group, but currently only use around 40% of the available proteins. To that end, their work aims to gain an insight into how the remainder of these targets could be exploited.

The scientists will be using technology invented in Nottingham—and the basis for the University spin-off company CellAura Technologies Ltd based in Nottingham—in which they label a drug molecule with a fluorescent chemical and then detect the light it gives off when interacting with receptors in the cell membrane using laser confocal microscopes and single-molecule detection techniques, including FCS. In this way, they can observe the way in which drugs are binding and unbinding as it is happening—which gives an accurate indication of how effective a drug is and how long its effects are likely to last.

As part of the consortium, the Nottingham scientists will be leading the way on the educational side devising training in research, business, and communications skills for postdoctoral students from all over Europe, some of which will be based at the University during the course of the five-year project.


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