Brains and corporate brawn to fight liver disease

Picture: Getty
Picture: Getty
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Scottish researchers hope to create vital drugs to tackle liver disease in a partnership with the pharmaceutical industry.

The University of Edinburgh and drugs company GSK have signed a deal to work together to develop medicines with the potential to treat liver disease – the fifth-biggest killer in the UK.

University researchers have identified a treatment they believe is important in stopping fibrosis of the liver – the thickening and scarring of the tissue which causes disease.

They hope to take these findings and work with GSK to speed up development of new drugs to treat patients.

Dr Jonathan Fallowfield, senior clinical fellow and honorary consultant hepatologist at the University of Edinburgh, said in future they hoped it would be possible to reverse the liver scarring which caused problems in patients with liver disease.

“Although there have been substantial advances in our understanding of the basic mechanisms of fibrosis, and numerous anti-fibrotic targets identified, they have proven difficult to translate into therapies,” he said.

“If we can harness the therapeutic properties of this mechanism, we could prevent, halt or even reverse liver scarring.

“This would transform the way we view and manage chronic liver disease in the future.”

Liver disease is the biggest killer in the UK after cardiac, cancer, stroke and respiratory diseases. But while these other diseases have seen death rates fall dramatically in recent years, mortality linked to liver diseases has been rising year-on-year.

Figures from the UK show deaths from liver disease have increased by 12 per cent in the last three years. If these rates continue, liver deaths will double in the next 20 years.

Major causes of liver disease include chronic viral infection, alcohol abuse and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

New therapies are expected to reduce the burden of disease caused by viral infections, but alcohol and NAFLD cases are expected to be a growing problem. Despite the rising burden, there are no approved anti- fibrotic therapies for liver fibrosis or cirrhosis.

The new partnership looking for treatments for liver disease, and another focusing on pancreatitis, were formed through GSK’s Discovery Partnerships with Academia (DPAc) initiative.

This aims to bring together the complementary skills of academics and the drugs company in efforts to create treatments which will help patients.

Under the agreement negotiated by Edinburgh BioQuarter, the university will receive financial support from GSK as their work progresses. Researchers will also receive an upfront payment and royalties on sales from any product successfully created and sold after the partnership.

Dr Diane Harbison, head of business development at Edinburgh BioQuarter, said: “The best chance of success in the area of anti-fibrotic treatment is to marry the drug discovery expertise and infrastructure of big pharma with the deep biological insight and patient availability of clinical academia.”