R&D deal heralds new treatments for debilitating conditions

11 Jun 2015

New treatments are on the horizon for ankylosing spondylitis and two other debilitating conditions that affect up to three per cent of the global population – thanks to a research and development deal involving University of Queensland research.

University of Queensland Diamantina Institute Director Professor Matt Brown said the agreement between UQ’s commercialisation arm, UniQuest, and Janssen Cilag Pty Limited (Janssen), would capitalise on more than a decade of research.

The research involves important enzymes involved in activating the immune system.

Professor Brown said it had implications for the treatment of ankylosing spondylitis – a painful form of arthritis – and for psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease.

“These three conditions affect two to three per cent of the world’s population, and there is a great need for better treatments,” he said.

“This research and development agreement is a dream come true.

“I have spent my career researching the causes of these conditions, so it is tremendously rewarding to be collaborating with Janssen to find a treatment based on one of our discoveries.”

Professor Matt Brown from The University of Queensland on Vimeo available for media use.

Ankylosing spondylitis is an incurable immune disease affecting the spine, joints and tendons, and can be difficult to diagnose.

“Patients often ignore the initial symptoms, including recurring back pain and stiffness, but if untreated it can slowly worsen and result in the spine becoming fused and totally inflexible.” Professor Brown said.

Current treatments focus on reducing the symptoms, using non-steroidal anti-inflammatories and biologic therapies to minimise pain and inflammation.

In the 1970s it was discovered that most people with ankylosing spondylitis carried a mutation on a gene called HLA-B27.

Professor Brown said that for 40 years it was thought to be the only gene involved in the development of the disease.

“But since 2007 we have identified more than 26 other genes involved in the development of ankylosing spondylitis. This discovery has led to the resulting research collaboration.”

Professor Brown and colleagues published research in Nature Genetics in 2011, explaining how select enzymes work with HLA-B27 to help the immune system distinguish between what is self and what is foreign.

They showed that in ankylosing spondylitis genetic variants result in the production of overactive enzymes that act in combination with HLA-B27 to induce arthritis. 

Research published in Nature Communication last month shows that a specific enzyme works in conjunction with HLA-B27 and other genes associated with ankylosing spondylitis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease.

Professor Brown said the culmination of this research led to the identification of two enzymes as promising drug targets.

“We think that by inhibiting these enzymes we could be able to switch off the immune reaction that causes these common diseases.” he said.

“In animal models the absence of such genes appears to have very few side effects.

“Our three-year collaboration seeks to capitalise on Janssen’s drug discovery expertise including their capability to screen thousands of compounds to find inhibitors of the two enzymes, which we would optimise together.”

Janssen Cilag Pty Limited, one of the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, will have exclusive worldwide rights to develop and commercialise the drug candidates identified by UQ researchers.

Also involved in the project are collaborators from St Vincent's Institute of Medical Research.

Media: University of Queensland Diamantina Institute Communications and Marketing Manager Kate Templeman, +61409 916 801, k.templeman@uq.edu.au; UniQuest Senior Director Industry Engagement Craig Belcher, +61 7 3365 4037, c.belcher@uniquest.com.au.