A Craigavon pharmaceutical company is ploughing £13m into a new research and development tie-up aimed at helping develop a breakthrough treatment for cancer.
Almac's research division Almac Discovery will carry out trials in collaboration with Queen's University Belfast to assess the performance of the first "novel" cancer drug fully developed in Northern Ireland and will also help to set up a new anti-cancer drug discovery unit at Belfast City Hospital.
The formal tie-up between the company and the researchers at Queen's Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology (CCRCB) follows the discovery of the prototype for the drug ALM201 by Professor Tracy Robson in the School of Pharmacy at Queen's.
It was then developed further by Professor Robson and the team at Almac Discovery in Craigavon and works by preventing the growth of new blood vessels, something which inhibits tumour growth.
However ALM201, unlike the majority of other anti-angiogenic therapies, is said to function through an entirely new mechanism and has the potential to treat a wider range of patients than currently possible, including those resistant to existing therapies.
Pre-clinical trials have already been completed and the next phase of testing begins next year.
The three-year trial at Belfast City Hospital will be led by Dr Richard Wilson, director of the Northern Ireland Clinical Trials Unit at Queen's, and managed by Almac Discovery and will be run from Belfast and two other UK based clinical trial centres.
"Almac and Queen's have already demonstrated through the creation and development of ALM201 how valuable and productive such a world class partnership between academia and industry can be," Alan Armstrong, CEO of the Almac Group said.
"By integrating academic and clinical researchers with experienced industrial scientists, we have the means to accelerate cancer-focused drug discovery towards the ultimate goal of improving patient care."
Tim Harrison was also announced yesterday as the inaugural McClay Chair of Medicinal Chemistry, the collaborative programme called the Almac/CCRCB Joint Drug Discovery Partnership.
Professor James McElnay, the acting president and vice chancellor of Queen's, said the joint venture marks an important new era for cancer patients in Northern Ireland and beyond.
"Not only is our newest collaboration set to deliver significant future economic benefits for Northern Ireland, it will also result in an increase in the development of potential new therapeutic approaches for patients, and accelerate the process in which treatments move from the lab bench to bedside," he said.
Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster said the tie-up has huge potential. Of the £13m investment, Invest NI offered £7m of support to Almac, part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund.
Compound prevents the growth of new blood vessels in tumours
ALM201 is a fragment of a natural protein discovered in the School of Pharmacy at Queen's by a research team led by professor Tracy Robson.
The compound was developed jointly by Almac Discovery in Craigavon and professor Robson.
The ALM201 trial will involve up to 60 patients who are being treated for ovarian cancer.
It will be led by Dr Richard Wilson, director of the Northern Ireland Clinical Trials Unit at Queen's.
Rather than attacking tumours directly, ALM201 prevents the growth of new blood vessels in tumours, starving them of oxygen and nutrients and thereby preventing their growth.
It targets tumours by an entirely different pathway to other treatments currently approved.
The new Almac Discovery/CCRCB drug discovery joint programme in Cancer Drug Discovery will see the discovery team work to identify parts of tumours which are susceptible to treatment by cancer drugs and to then develop the new drugs to target them.
The partnership will also enable new approaches to selecting those patients who will be most likely to respond to the new drugs, and to create the technologies needed to deliver the drugs directly to the tumour site in the patient.