Press release

First Pathfinder Awards announced tackling rare and orphan diseases

The first two projects to be funded under the Wellcome Trust’s new Pathfinder Awards are announced today, tackling rare and orphan diseases for which there are currently no or very limited treatment options.

A team of researchers at Lilly's Surrey-based drug discovery research centre has received funding to work in partnership with Professor John Hardy from the Department of Neuroscience at UCL to develop a cell line of human stem cells that can be used to study a rare group of severe neurological disorders that affect children and young adults.

Neurodegeneration with brain iron accumulation (NBIA) is the name used to describe a group of neurological disorders with symptoms that include tremors, sustained muscle contractions and a decline in brain function. A key feature of all of the disorders is the build-up of a particular protein in the brain that is often associated with iron deposition.

Several genes have been linked to NBIA, but the disease mechanisms are poorly understood and there is currently no treatment. The development of an induced pluripotent human stem cell line offers a way to understand the underlying mechanism of NBIA and will accelerate the development of new treatments for these debilitating disorders.

Professor Michael Hutton, Lilly's Chief Scientific Officer for Neurodegenerative Disease, commented: "We are extremely excited to be working with Professor Hardy's team at UCL. The new Pathfinder Awards and Lilly's own collaborative approach to innovation are complementary in bringing academia and industry together. This partnership will allow us to generate research tools vital to our understanding of the functional impact of genetic mutations linked to NBIA. We are delighted to have been successful."

The other project to be funded aims to tackle a rare, hereditary metabolic disorder called homocystinuria, which leaves patients unable to metabolise a particular molecule called methionine.

A team of researchers at Pfizer will work with Dr Wyatt Yue at the Structural Genomics Consortium at the University of Oxford to investigate methods of restoring normal metabolism and preventing the progression of the disease. The team will study the enzyme that is affected by the disease and investigate ways to restore its function.

Homocystinuria manifests itself in childhood with both physical and mental defects and there is currently no cure. Therapy involves strict dietary management; however, not all patients are responsive to treatment and therapy is not often available outside of major academic institutions.

Kevin Lee, Chief Scientific Officer and head of Pfizer's Rare Diseases Research Unit, said: "Homocystinuria is a severe condition that affects approximately one in 300 000 births, though recent research suggests the condition is significantly under-diagnosed.

"Pfizer is honoured to receive this award and to be working alongside Dr Yue and his team to progress research in this area of unmet medical need. This collaboration underlines our commitment to the rare disease area and our strategy to partner with leading groups in innovative ways."

Ted Bianco, Director of Technology Transfer at the Wellcome Trust, said: "Orphan and neglected diseases present a huge challenge and we believe that successful collaborations between academia and industry will be vital for finding new treatments and diagnostics. This is a key priority for the Pathfinder Awards and we are delighted that the first two projects to be supported under the scheme will foster such exciting cross-sectoral collaborations."

The Pathfinder Awards were set up to facilitate funding applications that would be considered too early for support under the Wellcome Trust's other translational funding models. The focus of the Pathfinder Award model is orphan and neglected diseases for which no current therapy exists or where the proposed potential product will be superior to the existing options.

The Pathfinder Award model is designed to help academic teams, or teams from not-for-profit groups, to build on existing partnerships or establish partnerships with a company that has specialist knowledge and access to technologies to facilitate the development of a potential product. The ultimate aim is to kick-start pilot research projects that have significant potential to help develop innovative new products in these disease areas, but which may not otherwise be economically attractive to the private sector.

About Lilly and Company

Lilly, a leading innovation-driven corporation, is developing a growing portfolio of pharmaceutical products by applying the latest research from its own worldwide laboratories and from collaborations with eminent scientific organizations. Headquartered in Indianapolis, Ind., Lilly provides answers - through medicines and information - for some of the world's most urgent medical needs.

About UCL (University College London)

Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. We are among the world's top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. UCL currently has 24,000 students from almost 140 countries, and more than 9,500 employees. Our annual income is over £800 million. Follow us on Twitter @uclnews.

About Pfizer

At Pfizer, we apply science and our global resources to improve health and well-being at every stage of life. We strive to set the standard for quality, safety and value in the discovery, development and manufacturing of medicines for people and animals. Our diversified global health care portfolio includes human and animal biologic and small molecule medicines and vaccines, as well as nutritional products and many of the world's best-known consumer products. Every day, Pfizer colleagues work across developed and emerging markets to advance wellness, prevention, treatments and cures that challenge the most feared diseases of our time. Consistent with our responsibility as the world's leading biopharmaceutical company, we also collaborate with health care providers, governments and local communities to support and expand access to reliable, affordable health care around the world. For more than 150 years, Pfizer has worked to make a difference for all who rely on us.

About the Structural Genomics Consortium

The Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) is a not-for-profit, public-private partnership formed in July 2004, with the core mandate to determine three-dimensional structures on a large scale and cost-effectively - targeting human proteins of biomedical importance. Since its inception, the SGC has been engaged in pre-competitive, open access research by generating reagents and knowledge of relevance to drug discovery.

The SGC is a registered charity (number 1097737) that receives funds from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, Genome Canada, GlaxoSmithKline, Lilly Canada, the Novartis Research Foundation, Pfizer, Takeda, AbbVie, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation, and the Wellcome Trust. To find out more please visit our website and follow us on twitter @thesgconline.

About Oxford University

Oxford University's Medical Sciences Division is one of the largest biomedical research centres in Europe, with over 2,500 people involved in research and more than 2,800 students. The University is rated the best in the world for medicine, and it is home to the UK's top-ranked medical school.

From the genetic and molecular basis of disease to the latest advances in neuroscience, Oxford is at the forefront of medical research. It has one of the largest clinical trial portfolios in the UK and great expertise in taking discoveries from the lab into the clinic. Partnerships with the local NHS Trusts enable patients to benefit from close links between medical research and healthcare delivery.

A great strength of Oxford medicine is its long-standing network of clinical research units in Asia and Africa, enabling world-leading research on the most pressing global health challenges such as malaria, TB, HIV/AIDS and flu. Oxford is also renowned for its large-scale studies which examine the role of factors such as smoking, alcohol and diet on cancer, heart disease and other conditions.

About the Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust's breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.