Innovation: Sugars harnessed to fight disease: A glycobiology company spun off from Oxford University plans to use its expertise to develop more effective drugs

A UK company is aiming to capitalise on research that shows sugars play a leading role in many human diseases.

Oxford Glycosystems was spun out of Oxford University in 1988 to develop equipment for analysing the structure of sugars. Now it intends to use its world-leading knowledge as the basis of a drugs discovery division.

The emerging science of glycobiology, the study of the molecular activity of sugars in the body, offers the potential to develop new drugs to combat diseases including arthritis, asthma, cancer and malaria, and the ability to 'turbo boost' existing drugs by targeting them for specific tissues.

Dr Robert Burns has just joined Oxford Glycosystems from British Biotechnology to set up the drugs division. The company, which has so far raised dollars 30m (pounds 19m) in venture capital, wants to raise the same amount again to fund this development. The company has completed preparations for a New York listing on Nasdaq. But Dr Burns says it will be able to raise the money privately if market conditions remain unsuitable for a flotation.

The driving force behind Oxford Glycosystems is the glycobiology pioneer, Professor Raymond Dwek, who has overthrown the orthodoxy that there are only two significant types of biological molecule: proteins and DNA.

Together with colleagues at Oxford University's Glycobiology Institute, Professor Dwek has shown that complex branching chains of sugar molecules on the outside of proteins actually control the functioning of the proteins. Proteins depend on their sugars to recognise and interact with one another. Research suggests that many diseases are the result of abnormal sugar chains and that they might be treated by manipulating the sugars.

For example, rheumatoid arthritis is associated with abnormal distribution of sugars on the patient's antibodies. It is also thought that these sugars play a key role in the movement of cancer cells around the body to start secondary tumours. Drugs designed to bind the sugars would prevent the cancer spreading.

Working with the pharmaceuticals company, Monsanto, the Glycobiology Institute has developed an Aids drug, Butyl-DNJ, which is now in the second stage of clinical trials. The drug works by disrupting the sugars on the surface of HIV, the virus that causes Aids. HIV relies on its specific sugar patterns to recognise and infect human cells.

Just as instruments for elucidating the structure of proteins and DNA were vital to the commercialisation of molecular biology, Oxford Glycosystems has opened up the potential of glycobiology by developing equipment and techniques for analysing quickly the complex structures of sugars.

The company has developed three different machines and has an annual turnover of dollars 5m. Customers include Zeneca, SmithKline Beecham, Glaxo and Wellcome. As the company set up by the university to commercialise its glycobiology research (the University has 5 per cent of the equity), Oxford Glycosystems has exclusive rights to work carried out at the Institute on the analysis and preparation of sugars.

Dr Burns says Oxford Glycosystems will follow three approaches in drug discovery. First, it will design new sugars and test them for pharmacological effects. Second, it will aim to enhance the effectiveness of existing drugs by linking sugars to them so that they can be targeted at specific tissues. For example, cytotoxic drugs used to treat liver cancer also kill normal cells in other parts of the body. By adding a sugar, the drugs would only be able to bind to the specific sugar on the outside of the tumour cells.

Dr Burns believes this approach would be popular with pharmaceutical companies that have lucrative drugs nearing the end of their patent protection. Such modified drugs would not only be more effective, they would be patentable, cheap and fast to get to market.

The third area of research will be the discovery and development of new drugs, starting with cancer treatment.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Ireland will not find out whether gay couples have won the right to marry until Saturday afternoon
Kim Jong-un's brother Kim Jong-chol
Manchester city skyline as seen from Oldham above the streets of terraced houses in North West England on 7 April 2015.
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Neil Pavier: Management Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you looking for your next opportunity for ...

Sheridan Maine: Commercial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ACA/ACCA/ACMA qua...

Laura Norton: Project Accountant

£50,000 - £60,000: Laura Norton: Are you looking for an opportunity within a w...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?