Boehringer Ingelheim and the University of Dundee are engaged in a collaboration to develop a new class of medicine, opening up possibilities for drug development in areas of high medical need.

Boehringer Ingelheim is one of the world’s 20 leading pharmaceutical companies with a focus on researching, developing, manufacturing and marketing new medications of high therapeutic value for humans and animals. The collaboration with the University of Dundee brings together the expertise of Professor Alessio Ciulli, one of the pioneers in the field of drug design for targeting protein degradation, based in the School of Life Sciences, with Boehringer Ingelheim’s expertise in drug discovery and development of new therapeutic agents.

“We believe our approach has the potential to fundamentally transform how we tackle protein targets to fight disease. This is a prime example of university-business collaboration establishing a disruptive new approach to drug discovery, initially developed in academia, and to enable its translation all the way to benefit patients.” Professor Alessio Ciulli, University of Dundee Professor of Chemical and Structural Biology

The team is working to develop PROteolysis TArgeting Chimeric molecules (PROTACs) designed to harness the cell’s natural disposal system (the ubiquitin-proteasome) to specifically remove disease causing proteins. They do this by triggering the process of labelling such proteins as “expired” proteins, which the proteasome then removes. PROTACs are anticipated to be broadly applicable to therapeutic areas as diverse as oncology, immunology and respiratory diseases. It opens up opportunities to target disease mechanisms that have been difficult to reach with existing chemical modalities.

To trigger the degradation of target proteins, PROTACs are made of a moiety that binds the target molecule on one end and a moiety that binds a ubiquitin ligase enzyme on the other, which is a key component of the ubiquitin-proteasome system. As a result, they are likely to exceed the molecular size of conventional oral drug molecules. The design of such “medium sized” drug molecules represents a considerable challenge and is one of the frontiers of modern drug discovery.

Clive R. Wood, Ph.D., Senior Corporate Vice President, Discovery Research at Boehringer Ingelheim, said “Working closely with the researchers at the University of Dundee, one of the top research centres in the UK for life sciences and early-stage drug discovery, we benefit from a unique platform that can generate PROTAC-based drug candidates for multiple areas of unmet medical need.”

Boehringer Ingelheim’s overall focus is on developing innovative new treatment approaches providing outstanding value for patients. To achieve this, the company is increasing its commitment to external innovation, and is working with top partners from academia and industry worldwide. A growing network of academic collaborations reflects the company’s focus on emerging science that could open new avenues leading to the breakthrough medications of the future.

The collaboration not only builds on recent groundbreaking work of Professor Ciulli and his team, but also benefits from top facilities and expertise available within the School of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee, renowned for innovative industry-collaborations.


This article first appeared in the 2018 State of the Relationship report, commissioned by Research England and compiled and published by NCUB.