A big leap for the small in fighting disease

Given the opportunity, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can play a key role in developing therapies for some of society's most common diseases. It was for this reason that the European Commission (EC) supported a team of European universities and SMEs with over EUR 2 million to pursue the aims set out by the MACROCEPT project, and its daughter project KINACEPT, to find a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis.

The EC has followed the developments of the team since the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) with the successful project proposal submitted for MACROCEPT (Targeted therapies for inflammatory bowel disease). Confident with the progress made, the EC has now confirmed further funding for the project's successor, KINACEPT (Novel anti-inflammatory compounds for autoimmune diseases), under the SME funding component of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

"Looking for new therapies is a long and risky business," said Dr Michael Burnet, Managing Director of Synovo, one of KINACEPT's project partners. "But one that agile small companies can do well. Developing and perfecting a treatment has, however, become the province of larger companies because the regulatory and clinical environment has become very complex and expensive. The decision of the EC to support the efforts of small companies is to be commended," he explains.

Having laid the groundwork under MACROCEPT, the team is now intent on testing whether the new substance 'family' they invented during FP6 can be considered a potential new treatment against rheumatoid arthritis.

Like psoriasis and multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, a term that refers to the reaction of the human body's own immune system against itself. There are several diseases that have an autoimmune component, including asthma and type 1 diabetes.

Although there are a great number of people around the world who are severely affected by these types of diseases, there are also many people who live with mild forms of autoimmune disease and are largely unaffected by them.

Dr Burnet explained that, as a group, these diseases are common and are increasing in frequency, particularly in industrialised countries. "To explain this increase in these diseases, some have proposed the hygiene hypothesis; namely that the reduction in levels of parasites in our environment has left our immune systems with little to do except over-react to the body itself. This hypothesis remains, however, controversial," he said.

As with any scientific endeavour, success teeters between promising outcomes and uncertain ones. If the KINACEPT team's efforts are indeed successful, then they will have developed a novel candidate therapy for several debilitating diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis. "Such a therapy would be less expensive than current options and should have fewer side effects," said Dr Burnet.

The KINACEPT consortium represents a successful European partnership between public institutions (i.e. universities) and pharmaceutical companies. The latter are all SMEs that have been assigned different stages of the development process. During the project's two-year duration, some of the partners will be involved in the early chemistry process, some in the testing, and others in the safety and manufacturing assessments.

The project partners are the Czech Academy of Sciences' Molecular Genetics Institute (Czech Republic), CAIR Bioscience (Germany), Dr Margarete Fischer-Bosch Institute of Clinical Pharmacology (Germany), Synovo GmbH (Germany), University Clinic Erlangen (Germany), University of Tubingen (Germany), Intercept SA (Italy), University of Perugia (Italy), Inte:Ligand (Austria) and the William Harvey Research Institute (UK).

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