A new start-up company based in Glasgow is looking to eradicate “one of the most intractable of infectious diseases in human history” after securing €5 million (£4.2m) in European funding.
The financial injection from the EU Malaria Fund has paved the way for the formation of Keltic Pharma Therapeutics, the latest spin-out from the University of Glasgow. It follows publication of research by the company’s three co-founders – Professor Andrew Tobin, Professor Graeme Milligan and Dr Andrew Jamieson – which could lead to both a vaccination against malaria and a treatment for those infected by the parasite within five years.
Malaria kills approximately 400,000 people each year, with an estimated two-thirds of those deaths in children less than five years old. The disease imposes a huge healthcare burden on Africa, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) has stressed the need for continued efforts against the disease despite the recent focus on Covid-19.
“Obviously the world is very interested in the eradication of infectious diseases at the moment and malaria has been one of the most intractable of those infectious diseases in human history, I would argue,” said Mr Tobin, a professor of molecular pharmacology at the university.
Keltic Pharma is building on the recent discovery of PfCLK3, a protein present in malaria which is essential for its survival. Inhibiting the activity of PfCLK3 kills the parasite to prevent it from spreading, but also has possibilities for treating the disease.
The three co-founders will continue in their positions with the University of Glasgow while the full-time management of Keltic Pharma will be fall to chief executive Elaine Sullivan, a former executive with Eli Lilly and AstraZeneca with more than 20 years’ experience of business development in the scientific sector.
The cash injection will be used to recruit experts in drug discovery who will work at a new laboratory at the university’s Advanced Research Centre (ARC) on the former site of the Western Infirmary. The £113m ARC is due to open early next year, with Keltic Pharma among its first tenants.
“I think the word ‘accelerate’ is quite a good word to use here,” Mr Tobin said. “This €5m definitely accelerates the malaria programme out of Glasgow. The business case says we will deliver a clinical molecule, a drug for clinical use, in five years.”
He added that it will probably take “about £20m” to bring a drug to the clinic, while the money from the EU Malaria Fund is due to be repaid within eight years.
Keltic Pharma is therefore hoping to build on the founders’ expertise in a group of proteins known as “G protein coupled receptors” (GPCRs) to develop other drugs as medicines for human conditions. Severe asthma and dementia are at the top of this list, as treatments for both conditions are very sought-after by large pharmaceutical companies.
“We need to generate income,” Mr Tobin explained.
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“As a business proposition, malaria is very difficult because it doesn’t earn very much money because it is basically a philanthropic exercise. So the other arm of the company is to take forward our research in areas where there is a higher commercial value.”
The EU Malaria Fund is a public-private partnership between the European Union and various international organisations. It specialises in addressing commercial market failures in the funding of infectious diseases with significant impact on global public health.
Bonnie Dean, Vice Principal of corporate engagement and innovation at the university, said: “The University of Glasgow is very proud of what the co-founders and executive team have achieved in terms of attracting EU funding to take this important research forward into life-changing impact, particularly in Africa.”