University of Glasgow spin-out Keltic Pharma secures multi-million-euro funding to tackle malaria

A University of Glasgow spin-out has received a substantial multi-million-euro award to develop its malaria research into a drug that could cure the disease and prevent it from spreading.

The newly-established Keltic Pharma Therapeutics has been co-founded by Professor Andrew Tobin, Professor Graeme Milligan and Dr Andrew Jamieson. It will, on the back of the cash injection from the European Union (EU) Malaria Fund, build on the recent discovery of a protein called PfCLK3, which is present in the malaria parasite and is essential for it to survive.

Research, led by a team of scientists at the University and published in 2019 in the journal Science, found that inhibiting – or stopping – the activity of the PfCLK3 protein kills the malaria parasite, which prevents it from spreading and also holds the possibility of treating the disease. As a result, Keltic Pharma plans to develop a PfCLK3 inhibitor into a drug that could be used for the treatment of malaria.

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One of the co-founders of the spin-out says developing a drug to treat malaria 'was only a dream ten years ago'. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.

The spin-out highlighted the “devastating” toll of the disease, saying it kills around 400,000 people each year, with an estimated two thirds of all malaria deaths among children under the age of five. It added that the disease imposes a huge healthcare burden on Africa in particular, where access to medical care can be difficult. The World Health Organisation has stressed the need to continue the efforts against malaria, despite the recent focus on Covid-19.

News of the Keltic Pharma boost comes after the approval of a malaria vaccine. The Mosquirix vaccine has been created by UK-based pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline.

The EU Malaria Fund is a public-private partnership between the EU, international organizations, corporations, and organized civic society, providing a novel funding instrument to address market failures in infectious diseases with significant relevance to public health globally.

Keltic Pharma hopes to build on the founders’ global expertise in a group of proteins called G protein coupled receptors (GPCR) to develop other drugs as medicines for a number of conditions. The EU funding will launch the drug discovery programmes in both malaria and against other potential GPCR targets.

Dream

Professor Tobin, co-founder of the spin-out and Professor of Molecular Pharmacology at the University of Glasgow, said: “To receive this funding from the EU is fantastic for Keltic Pharma and the University of Glasgow, as it will allow us to develop a drug for the treatment of malaria – an outcome from my malaria research that was only a dream ten years ago.”

Fellow co-founder Professor Milligan, Gardiner Chair of Biochemistry at the University, said: “This EU funding will allow us to progress our very exciting basic research programmes studying GPCRs into drug discovery for the treatment of a number of human diseases.”

The third joint founder, Dr Jamieson, Reader in Chemical Biology at the University’s School of Chemistry, said: “As an academic chemist, it is a real joy to be able to be a founder of a company that can take advantage of our academic discoveries and turn them into new medicines.”

Bonnie Dean, the University’s vice-principal, corporate engagement and innovation, 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.”

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