Ten new research projects ranging from improved keyhole surgery to potential new drug treatments for cancer, psoriasis and diabetes are starting up at the University of Dundee in Scotland under the Medical Research Council’s (MRC) Developmental Pathway Funding Scheme (DPFS).

In January the University of Dundee was awarded £2 million under the scheme. It was one of five centres chosen to pilot DPFS devolved portfolios – block awards that can be used to support goal-oriented translational research projects. The other four centres were Kings College London, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Nottingham and Severnside Alliance for Translational Research, a partnership between the Universities of Bristol and Cardiff.

Since the scheme was announced, more than 40 research proposals have come in from across the University of Dundee, whose relationship with the Medical Research Council already included notably the MRC Protein Phosphorylation Unit under the direction of Sir Philip Cohen. The Unit, which is also part of the University’s Division of Signal Transduction Therapy, has forged collaborations with leading pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca, Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline.

Of the 10 projects selected for the devolved portfolio pilots, one involves developing a medicated cream for the treatment of psoriasis based on a recently identified signalling pathway. This strand is led by Dr John Foerster of the University of Dundee’s School of Medicine, who said the MRC funding scheme “allows us to get on the fast track and take this discovery straight into the preclinical development of a new treatment”.

Another eight projects have been rolled into one ‘super-project’, to be managed by Professor Julie Frearson of the Drug Discovery Unit in the University’s College of Life Sciences. The aim is to develop eight individual molecular discoveries by Professors Daan van Alten, Julian Blow, John Hayes, David Lane, Angus Lamond, Irwin McLean, Tracy Palmer, Susann Schweiger and Roland Wolf into potential new medicines for cancer, eczema, Huntingdon’s disease, bacterial infections and type-2 diabetes.

Goal-oriented

The Developmental Pathway Funding Scheme was launched in April 2008 as the flagship of the MRC’s translational research strategy, using the £132 million extra investment allocated under the UK government’s last spending review to support outcomes-driven research.

The scheme is goal- and milestone-oriented (rather than hypothesis-driven), and is designed to address currently unmet needs. The devolved portfolio approach gives participating universities the flexibility to allocate money to different projects more responsively and based on relative progress, the MRC explained.

At a recent round-table meeting organised for the press at Dundee University by Scottish Development International, Professor Mike Ferguson, dean of research at the College of Life Sciences, described the devolved portfolio pilot as a “very healthy direction of travel” that allowed much quicker decision-making than through a centralised system.

Projects could be taken up to the point where they were suitable for partnering with industry, added Ferguson. He said the remit of the College’s Drug Discovery Unit, which combines integrated capabilities such as high-throughput screening, computational drug design, medicinal chemistry, drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics, and structural biology, was all about de-risking early-stage research.

Reflecting a broader concerted push behind the life sciences in Scotland – the sector has been showing annual GVA (Gross Value Added) growth rates of 7-8% per year, four times the medium-term average growth rate of the Scottish economy – the University of Dundee’s College of Life Sciences draws on research funding of more than £48 million per year. Its expertise spans fields such as (molecular) biology, biochemistry, genetics, proteomics, high-resolution imaging and cell signalling.

The College’s Drug Discovery Unit, whose focus areas include neglected tropical diseases, fungal diseases, stem cell technology, atopic dermatitis and oncology, has a portfolio of novel drug targets or mechanisms and, in parallel, neglected disease projects (e.g., addressing human African sleeping sickness) developed to the point of lead optimisation.

With the novel drug targets, explained Frearson, the unit will normally go only as far as proof of concept in a disease model, then leave the lead optimisation to an industry partner. But its integrated expertise, along with a portfolio-based approach that allows it to move resources around more freely, means the Drug Discovery Unit can tailor its output more easily to existing drug pipelines.

It can also take “a little bit extra risk” to see whether a concept is therapeutically valid or druggable, Frearson commented. In an industrial environment, she noted, these concepts probably would not make it so far, since the standard pharmaceutical company approach is “individualist” and “reductionist”, often resulting in “massive” attrition.