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A new tack for discovery funding

U.K. Parkinson’s charity launches a start-up with University of Sheffield

by Rick Mullin
March 15, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 12

A researcher in a biology lab looking at a computer screen.
Credit: Parkinson’s UK
Researchers at the University of Sheffield’s Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience are studying a biological defense system that protects brain cells from oxidative stress.

The University of Sheffield and Parkinson’s UK are joining to launch Keapstone Therapeutics, a virtual biotech company that will develop a technique identified at the university for triggering a biological defense system that protects brain cells from oxidative stress associated with Parkinson’s disease.

The new venture, funded with $1.2 million from Parkinson’s UK, is an outgrowth of the charity’s Virtual Biotech venture, a program to support early-stage research by forming virtual companies.

“Due to the funding gap in early-stage drug discovery, there are promising scientific breakthroughs for Parkinson’s happening every day that are not being picked up and developed by commercial companies,” says Arthur Roach, director of research at Parkinson’s UK. Keapstone, he claims, is the first partnership between a charity and an academic research institute to fill the gap with a start-up aimed at a single research program.

Richard Meade, a neuroscientist at Sheffield, says the new company will allow the university to advance research into later stages of drug discovery and development. Keapstone will fund small-molecule synthesis by Sygnature Discovery, a contract chemistry research firm.

The launch of a single-asset start-up by a charity and an academic lab may be unique, but the effort is one of many innovative link-ups between industry, academia, philanthropies, and patient advocacy groups working in multiple therapeutic areas. The diabetes nonprofit JDRF, for example, joined with the technology development company PureTech in 2013 to create T1D Innovations as a launch pad for firms researching type 1 diabetes cures. And last year, the Gates Foundation and the life sciences investment firm Accelerator put $17 million into starting Lodo Therapeutics, which develops therapies for microbial infections and cancer based on chemistry from labs at Rockefeller University.

In Parkinson’s, the Michael J. Fox Foundation has invested in the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery.

“I think that what you’re seeing here is activity being spurred by the state of research in Parkinson’s,” says Sohini Chowdhury, senior vice president of research partnerships at the Fox Foundation. “The landscape in drug development is incredibly robust compared with where it was a decade ago.”



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