The Drug Discovery Unit (DDU) at Scotland’s Dundee University has secured more than £10 million from the Wellcome Trust to research and develop safe and affordable treatments for neglected tropical diseases, including £8.6 million for a partnership between the university and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

The DDU will work with GSK’s Kinetoplastids Discovery Performance Unit at the company’s Tres Cantos Medicines Development Campus in Spain, pursuing an integrated, multidisciplinary effort to find effective treatments for three neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), Chagas disease, leishmaniasis and African sleeping sickness.

The aim of the partnership is to deliver at least one treatment for one of these diseases during the next five years.

The Drug Discovery Unit at Dundee University was set up in 2005 specifically to fill a void in research and development of drug targets for diseases of poverty such as leishmaniasis, Chagas disease and sleeping sickness (human African trypanosomiasis/HAT).

In April 2010, scientists at the university said they had identified a valid drug target and progressed to lead optimisation with potential low-toxicity, orally administered compounds for HAT. The plan was to partner with a pharmaceutical company for further development once a candidate drug had been through preclinical testing.

Existing relationship

Dundee University also has an existing relationship with GlaxoSmithKline. In June 2011, for example, the Scottish university hooked up with GSK to study recessive dystrophic epidermylosis bullosa, an orphan disease of the skin and mucosal linings.

Last December, the two parties signed another agreement for collaborative research on a rare disorder, this time focusing on Huntington’s disease.

Significant progress

According to the Dundee researchers, “significant progress” has been made at the university over the last five years towards developing a new treatment for African sleeping sickness in particular. There have also been “promising results” in identifying potential treatments for leishmaniasis.

“Currently we have a portfolio of discovery projects in various stages of development in African sleeping sickness and visceral leishmaniasis,” commented the university’s Professor Mike Ferguson.

“We have several types of compounds with promising activity in animal models. The next step is to chemically modify these molecules to find the optimal balance of drug-like properties for clinical trials.”


GSK is a founding member of the WIPO (World International Property Organization) Re:Search consortium, which brings together eight leading pharmaceutical companies and multiple non-profit research organisations with the aim of accelerating development of new and better treatments against NTDs.

The company’s own R&D portfolio currently includes projects for Chagas disease, dengue fever, HAT and leishmaniasis. Earlier this year, GSK joined a new global partnership including other major pharmaceutical companies, the World Health Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in a united effort to control or eliminate 10 NTDs by the end of the decade. 

 “Having an industry-experienced, multidisciplinary drug discovery team housed alongside world leaders in the biology of these parasites is a major strength of the Drug Discovery Unit and is rare in a UK university,” said Professor Paul Wyatt, head of the DDU at Dundee University. 

“The support from the Wellcome Trust has enabled us to create a powerful team by combining DDU’s and GSK’s considerable expertise and infrastructure, to accelerate progress towards discovering new drugs for these terrible diseases.”