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)

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