The National Centre spoke with Dr. Lysimachos Zografos, Co-Founder of Parkure to discuss their mission, how they sourced funding and why academia is essential for the company’s aspirations.
What is Parkure?
“Parkinson’s disease is a major cause of human suffering. The symptoms are debilitating, but what is more frustrating is that there is no cure.”
We are a new Edinburgh-based company with the sole mission to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease by identifying drugs that stop the nerve degeneration process underlying the it. Our innovation lies both because of our fruitfly-based technology, which while being biologically relevant, can drastically reduce the use of mammals in this type of research, but also because of our approach to funding drug discovery. We will be making the first crowdfunded drug discovery effort in Scotland and one of the first worldwide trying to tackle a disease of this size.
Who is involved in Parkure and how did this come about?
Parkure was co-founded by myself, Prof. Douglas Armstrong (University of Edinburgh) and Prof. Wayne Davies (University of Edinburgh). We developed our drug screening method as part of our research in a University of Edinburgh spin-out company called Brainwave-Discovery Ltd. Between us, we share an academic background and expertise spanning neurobiology, Parkinon’s disease animal models and fruitfly behaviour. In addition to these Prof. Davies and Prof. Armstrong have a long experience in the management aspects of biotechnology companies, both being active in the field professionally for a number of years. Our team was lucky enough to get another senior director on board, Ron James of PPL Therapeutics and Dolly the sheep fame. Ron brings his senior experience and extended personal contact network, which is particularly useful in such ventures.
What is the importance of this spin-out?
Parkinson’s disease is a major cause of human suffering. It affects 1 in 100 people over 60, but also those as young as 20. The symptoms are debilitating, but what is more frustrating is that there is no cure. All treatments for Parkinson’s at the moment are symptomatic. It is also important to remember that according to the UN population projections the number of over-60s will reach 1.8 billion by 2050. From that standpoint Parkinson’s is also a major threat to the ageing population. Also, we have to keep in mind that Parkinson’s costs up to £3 billion annually to the UK, so finding a cure will not only help those suffering but it will help us all as a society.
From a completely different perspective, that of business, we are making a bold step towards a new way of funding drug discovery. We will be making the first crowdfunded effort to deal with such a big nervous system disease. It will also be the first effort to crowdfund drug discovery in Scotland. Crowdfunding is a new way of allowing the public to fund projects of interest and has been successfully used to fund research for rare diseases – those that might not had been profitable enough for large pharmaceuticals to look into. Using crowdfunding for more widespread diseases means that those with an interest in solving the problem are more likely to see it solved. It’s strength in numbers that helps alleviate the initial risk in such ventures. Once past the initial risk larger pharmaceutical companies can come in. In a world where money is behind some of these strategic decisions, crowdfunding is a way for people to align big companies interests with their own.
“In a world where money is behind some of these strategic decisions, crowdfunding is a way for people to align big companies interests with their own.”
How were you able to source funding?
We are currently about to embark on our main fundraising campaign. A lot of work needed to be done beforehand though and this would have been impossible without the help received from the University of Edinburgh. Other than Enterprise Award we won, we have applied and received funding for initial business development consultancy and training. In addition to these the University provides dedicated legal and accounting assistance, as well as guidance with funding applications and the overall preparation before fundraising. It would have been very hard without them.
You have stressed that the current drug (levodopa) used to treat symptoms of Parkinson’s disease has not progressed much since the 1960’s, why is this?
There are two reasons for this. The first is that many of the more recent attempts were based on trying to create similar molecules to levodopa or target the same pathway in order to make drugs. Levodopa is known to work – as a symptomatic-only treatment with really bad side effects nevertheless – so trying to come up with something similar always was a safer business strategy. The second has to do with the disease process itself. Pharmaceutically intervening in the mechanisms underlying Parkinson’s is very complicated. In order to find a cure, we most likely have to look at pathways other than the one levodopa acts on and in order to screen thousands of drugs and see which is the best we have to have a living system and not a traditional drug discovery approach. These systems could not have that throughput capacity until our scaled up fruitfly-based process came along.
How important is the synergy between industry and academia in making these aspirations come to fruition?
Academic research is key and we would be nowhere without it. Our technology is based on a decade of academic research, including ours. Given the limited funding resources however, it is hard for academics to take projects such as ours all the way through, there has to be a sustainable business model somewhere. This is why interaction between academia and industry should be encouraged and facilitated by universities. Also, it doesn’t all have to be about profit, academic innovation can turn into successful business without loosing sight of a cause or an ethical modus operandi… And what better way is there other than have the inventors and academics in charge?
What is Parkure’s business approach?
“Academic research is key and we would be nowhere without it. Our technology is based on a decade of academic research, including ours.”
Our mission is to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease and we do our best to keep that emphasised throughout our business approach and practice. We will use a community powered crowdfunded approach in order to collect enough data to attract the funding required to screen drugs en masse. Once we have achieved that we will approach larger pharmaceuticals in order to take the drugs through trials and to the patients. Our business approach is aligning our innovation’s capabilities with the need of sufferers and the demands of the pharmaceutical industry. There is a configuration where all three are compatible.
As a spin-out company what support do you need to successfully find a cure for Parkinson’s disease?
Starting up is always a hard. Support in taking an idea from paper to fully operating business is always welcome since there are so many issues to be dealt with. In addition to that, we have liaised with all major Parkinson’s disease non-profit organisations that can provide precious funding. This funding is valuable and necessary downstream, when an interesting candidate has been discovered and we’ll need to make it “interesting” for pharmaceutical companies by showing that it works well. Finally and because we are a company that has a drug repurposing focus, I’d like to mention that there is still a lot to be done in policy (e.g. patents) and incentives (e.g. funding) for risk sharing in order for repurposed drugs to become an attractive option for bigger pharmaceuticals which have the ability to take it to the market.
Dr. Lysimachos Zografos is Co-Founder at Parkure. He is also an Edinburgh based life scientist and entrepreneur.