The story of how the team of carbohydrate chemists led by Professor Richard Furneaux became the Ferrier Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington.
The Ferrier Research Institute was formed in January 2014. The group was previously part of Callaghan Innovation and Industrial Research Ltd (IRL), which was formed when the Department of Science and Industrial Research (DSIR) was dissolved in 1992.
The institute is named to honour the late Professor Robin Ferrier who pioneered carbohydrate chemistry in New Zealand and supervised the doctoral research of several of the group’s members during his tenure at Victoria University of Wellington.
In a nearly 30-year history, the group has established a world-class reputation in carbohydrate chemistry and analysis. It has a long list of national and international collaborators and clients.
Richard Furneaux joined Dr Ian Miller at DSIR in 1980 to explore the chemistry of seaweed polysaccharides. Richard also noticed the similarity between a patented herbicide and levoglucosenone, a compound that could be produced cheaply from waste paper.
In 1985, joined by Peter Tyler (also a Ferrier-supervised Victoria Univeristy chemistry graduate working at DSIR), the pair began researching a new class of herbicides derived from levoglucosenone.
Although the lead compound did not have the selectivity or field properties to make it commercially viable, the experience proved to be a good model for their future work. They would stick to their chemistry and make novel chemical compounds, but work with expert partners to test for biological activity.
The Schramm connection
In 1994 Richard and Peter met Professor Vern Schramm, a biologist from Albert Einstein College of Medicine, at a New York yacht club. Vern was having trouble finding a chemistry group to make a target nucleoside hydrolase inhibitor molecule he had designed to treat a variety of immune disorders. The structure of the desired molecule was drawn on a bar napkin and borne back to New Zealand, where Peter proceeded to make the complex molecule in a monumental 21-step synthesis.
The molecule’s activity was a thousand times greater than anything seen previously and the compound (ImmucillinH aka Forodesine hydrochloride the active ingredient of Mundesine) formed the basis of a whole new class of enzyme inhibitors.
The long-standing collaboration with Schramm’s group continues to this day and has resulted in several new drugs in clinical and pre-clinical trials. Vern has hosted many of our scientists over the years and several members of the institute have spent weeks to months to years working in his laboratory.
A desire to offer clients the option of manufacturing their active compounds at a scale and quality suitable for human clinical trials led to plans to build a dedicated scale-up facility on site. Richard Furneaux and Gary Evans led the process of designing and fitting out the plant, and the GlycoSyn facility was opened by then Prime Minister Helen Clark in 2003.
The Ferrier Research Institute maintains a close relationship with GlycoSyn and many clients use the seamless discovery, process development and large-scale synthesis service offered by the two groups.
New Zealand resources
The group’s expertise in the analysis and development of local resources stems from Richard’s early interest in the chemistry of seaweed polysaccharides. A team of researchers at the Ferrier Research Institute continues to offer specialised polysaccharide analysis and collaborates with a wide range of biological partners.