Heriot-Watt's pioneering efforts to tackle inflammation take step forward after funding boost

Efforts to establish a specialist Scottish biotechnology company, developing treatments for chronic inflammatory diseases and fibrosis, have taken off following a funding award.

“Ground-breaking” research from Heriot-Watt University and the University of Texas Medical Branch in the field is set to be commercialised after the funding award to the Edinburgh organisation from Scottish Enterprise’s High Growth Spinout Programme.

They explained that inflammation is the body’s normal healing response to damaging stimuli, including infections, injuries, and toxins, but chronic and untreated inflammatory disease can have serious consequences.

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It has been calculated that three in every five people die as a result of such a disease, with examples including respiratory, cardiac, vascular, Covid-19 and related viral infections, which are extremely difficult to treat due to the complex nature of inflammatory processes, resulting in continual demand for new medications.

Heriot-Watt's Global Research Innovation and Discovery facility is playing a key role. Picture: contributed.

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However, the new research has identified a way of targeting an enzyme called EPAC1, which is involved in the inflammation process and is responsible for many of the most serious yet common chronic diseases.

The team said it has already developed several potential new treatment options that show effectiveness in tackling inflammation at its source. Such medications, once they reach the market, are expected to offer advantages over existing options in both efficacy and safety.

Dr Stephen Yarwood from the Institute of Biological Chemistry, Biophysics and Bioengineering at Heriot-Watt, said: “By activating our newly identified enzyme, we can essentially ‘switch off’ inflammation. By doing so, we believe we can stop the harm chronic inflammation can do and hope to improve outcomes for patients when these treatments come to market.

“This funding will allow us to commercialise the breakthrough, bringing the research out of the lab to create a biotechnology business focused exclusively on developing treatments to target inflammatory diseases... we intend to build a biotechnology company of significant scale and ambition.”

Victoria Carmichael, director of strategic investments at Scottish Enterprise, said: “Our High Growth Spinout Programme was established specifically to help commercialise ground-breaking research conducted by Scotland’s universities.

“The development of EPAC1 has the potential to alleviate the suffering caused to millions of people around the world and highlights the important innovation-led approach the country’s academic institutions continue to apply to the management of chronic diseases.”

Expertise

The funding will be used for further development of the treatments and has allowed the team to recruit commercial expertise from industry veteran Chris Wardhaugh, who will act as chief executive-designate for the project. The team, which includes Dr Graeme Barker, is working with Heriot-Watt’s Global Research Innovation and Discovery (Grid) facility.

Mr Wardhaugh said: “This funding is the first step in a long road to bringing important new options to clinicians and patients. The whole team recognises the support of Scottish Enterprise in encouraging the commercialisation of new research and we are excited about the prospects of laying the foundations for another Scottish biotechnology success story.”

Paul Devlin, head of commercialisation at Heriot-Watt, commented: “This funding will help accelerate the impact of academic discovery on the daily lives of people affected by a wide range of life-changing and life-limiting diseases.

"With Heriot-Watt's expertise in delivering commercial, strategic and innovation support, coupled with the financial backing of Scottish Enterprise, we look forward to growing this research into an exciting, profitable, world-class business.”

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