Being able to buy in to the expertise of the Protein Informatics Group in the Department of Statistics is providing major companies with valuable tools for drug discovery.

Researchers all over the world are searching for the next generation of drugs to combat some of the greatest health threats we face in the 21st century. The biggest problem is often finding the right molecule to fight a disease with; many of our existing drugs have been discovered more or less by accident. It can be enormously time-consuming and expensive to test new drug candidates systematically in the lab to identify the ones with promising therapeutic properties to take forward into clinical trials.

A new initiative in the Department of Statistics offers pharmaceutical companies the tools they need to make this process dramatically quicker and more efficient. Professor Charlotte Deane’s research group specialises in using statistical methods to probe biological structures such as proteins. These complex molecules are essential for every function of living organisms, and are a keen focus of drug discovery research.

One class of proteins, antibodies, is of particular interest. Antibodies are an essential part of the immune system, since they bind to antigens (proteins or sugars) on the surface of a bacteria or virus and so mark it out as an invader. They are now being investigated for a range of uses including cancer treatment.

As with other drug candidates, there are vast numbers of antibodies that could be considered. Statistical software developed by the Deane group is able to model antibodies in three dimensions and predict what properties they will have. The software helps companies to prioritise which antibodies they should investigate further, and even to design entirely new antibodies.

But the really innovative aspect is that the companies get more than just the software. The usual business model involves buying a software licence, but this requires companies to develop their own expertise in using and interpreting complex specialist software.

The Deane group has overcome this problem with a new model: the software is completely open access, but companies buy the services of an Impact Software Engineer who can offer tailor-made training and support, adjust the software to meet the company’s needs, and give access to the expertise of the Deane group.

In just a few months the Deane group has established contracts with UCB, Xoma, Diamond Light Source and Medimmune, and is in discussion with most of the other big names in drug discovery, including GSK, Sanofi and Roche. And there is plenty of potential to expand the service; the group is currently working on a version of the software to interrogate small molecule drugs, another key focus of drug discovery.

Research funded by: EPSRC, MRC, UCB, Roche, GSK and Medimmune