News and events

Read the latest news from the Ferrier Research Institute.

$1.8million in funding to combat malaria

Scientists at Victoria University of Wellington’s Ferrier Research Institute are working on developing new drugs and vaccines to combat malaria—a mosquito-borne disease that can cause flu-like symptoms. Left untreated, there is a risk of severe complications and even death.

In 2016, there were an estimated 216 million cases—almost 3% of the world’s population—of malaria and, of those, 445,000 people died—mostly children in Africa.

“Drug development is expensive, and pharmaceutical companies consider this, and the potential for commercial returns, when choosing where to put their research efforts. While this has hampered efforts to find a cure, it also highlights the value of universities and research institutes who have an opportunity to pick up the challenge,” says Ferrier Research Institute’s Deputy Director, Professor Gary Evans.

Earlier this year, Ferrier Research Institute was awarded funding by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop new antimalarial drugs.

This research will be led by Ferrier’s Professor Peter Tyler who will collaborate with Professor Tom Meek’s group from Texas A&M University, and Professor Vern Schramm, from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. They will receive around $1.8m of funding over the next 5 years. This research will not only be focused on the development of an anti-malaria drug but will also attempt to create new therapeutic treatments for Chagas’s disease and African sleeping sickness.

“Malaria, Chagas’s disease and African sleeping sickness are all neglected tropical diseases, which currently have un-met or under-met medical treatments,” says Professor Tyler. “We’re going to target three parasitic protozoa, which cause the diseases. One of which is Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes the most virulent form of malaria, and the others are Trypanosoma cruzi and Trypanosoma brucei, which cause Chagas’s diseases and African sleeping sickness respectively.”

History of success

This new project builds on a decade of research into antimalarial strategies undertaken at the Institute and isn’t the first time Professor Tyler has been involved in the development of anti-malarial drugs. In 2011, in collaboration with Professor Vern Schramm and with funding from Medicines for Malaria Venture, he developed an antimalarial drug that showed potential to cure malaria in seven days. “Medicines for Malaria Venture has a policy of one pill a day for, at most, three days and preferably one, so this drug hasn’t yet been progressed,” says Professor Tyler.

He hopes that with this new funding, the Institute will be able to develop a drug that requires a smaller dosage.

Developing a vaccine

As well as developing an anti-malarial drug, researchers at the Ferrier Institute are also looking at an anti-malarial vaccine.

This work is being led by another Ferrier researcher, Professor Gavin Painter, in collaboration with the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research and the University of Melbourne and in partnership with Avalia Immunotherapies.

“When someone is bitten by a malaria-carrying mosquito, parasites are released into their skin. These parasites travel to the liver, undergo the first stage of replication and then re-enter the blood. That’s when the disease manifests so, theoretically, halting parasite growth back when they’re in the liver should prevent disease progression.”

“Previous vaccine research has attempted to utilise antibodies to combat malaria. However, antibodies aren’t able to access the liver stage of the parasite.”

Professor Painter and his team are looking at an alternative approach – a vaccine that generates ‘cellular or T cell immunity’. “We have developed a fully synthetic vaccine that induces particularly strong T cell responses against liver-stage malaria. The vaccine works by targeting a specialised population of the immune cells in the liver, known as innate-like T cells.”

“This alternative could be combined with more traditional vaccine approaches to potentially develop the world’s first effective vaccine for malaria.”

Growing Expertise

Further strengthening their ties to malaria expertise, Dr Leyla Bustamante, who previously worked at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, has recently joined the Ferrier Research Institute. Dr Bustamante and her team at the Welcome Trust used a process called “reverse vaccinology” to identify five antigen targets of Plasmodium falciparum which, if combined, show promise for further development.

“My research at the Welcome Trust Sanger Institute sought to understand the interactions between Plasmodium parasites and human cells, in order to identify and prioritise new drug and vaccine targets,” says Dr Bustamante. “We focused on the stage of the parasite life cycle that infects human red blood cells, as it is this stage that causes all the symptoms and pathology of malaria.”

Although Dr Bustamante is not currently researching anti-malaria treatments, her experience is being used to inform other researchers about the topic.

“By combining the expertise of Dr Leyla Bustamante with that of Professor Gavin Painter for the development of an anti-malarial vaccine, as well as the drug development efforts, the Ferrier Institute is focused on a finding a cure for this terrible disease,” says Professor Evans.

Ferrier Institute among 2018 Wellington Gold Awards finalists

25 May 2018

The finalists in Wellington's annual business awards were announced at a function last night.

The Ferrier Research Institute was nominated in the "Discovering Gold" category for the development of the cancer drug Mundesine.

The winners will be announced at the TSB Arena on July 5.

Research collaboration uses cutting-edge technology to bioengineer fungi to produce new veterinary drug

15 May 2018

Researchers from Victoria University of Wellington’s Ferrier Research Institute, Callaghan Innovation, the University of Canterbury, and Massey University have developed cutting-edge gene engineering technology to help scientists more efficiently manipulate DNA in order to produce new products, including a new veterinary drug.

Ferrier Research Institute researchers have used this novel technology to produce a new flea treatment for domestic pets by manipulating a compound called nodulisporic acid A.

“When used in insecticides, nodulisporic acid A is very effective at controlling fleas and ticks in domestic pets, but it is currently difficult to produce,” says Kyle van de Bittner, a PhD student at Ferrier Research Institute. “It is naturally produced in small quantities by a type of fungus, but until now the complexity of the compound and the fungus have prevented scientists from producing the compound in greater quantities. This has greatly impeded any development of drugs that include nodulisporic acid A.”

Using the new gene engineering technology, Ferrier staff have been able to better understand the compound and take the first steps towards producing it in greater quantities. They have identified the genes involved in producing an early stage of nodulisporic acid A, and been able to transfer those genes into a different fungus. This fungus grows quickly and has biological qualities which help speed up the process of making nodulisporic acid A.

There are additional advantages to the method.

“Rather than relying on toxic solvents typically used in the chemical synthesis of compounds like this, we use sugar water to grow the fungi to create the compounds,” Kyle says. “This is cheaper and more environmentally-friendly than current methods.”

Ferrier staff plan to continue development of the compound. They are also working with Matt Nicholson at VicLink, Victoria University’s commercialisation arm, to create a commercial product based on their work. The commercialisation work is funded by Kiwinet.

“This is just the beginning,” Kyle says. “We still have a great deal of work to do to finalise the production of our key chemical target, nodulisporic acid A, and optimise the fungus to make more of it. But the science is delivering and we are inspired to push the limits of what is possible.”

The new veterinary medicine was made possible by a novel technology called MIDAS (Modular Idempotent DNA Assembly System). MIDAS is a synthetic biology system that gives scientists more control over the DNA they manipulate during their research, resulting in a faster and more efficient way to make new pharmaceuticals, biofuels, antibodies, and more.

“Using MIDAS, scientists can more rapidly assemble new genes from a library of DNA parts,” says Callaghan Innovation scientist Dr Craig van Dolleweerd, who designed the MIDAS technology. “They can quickly test what the new genes do, and how they interact with other genes. This will greatly speed up research into the discovery of new biochemical pathways and the manufacture of new synthetic biology products, which includes everything from biofuels to fragrances.”

An article about the MIDAS technology was recently published in ACS Synthetic Biology, a leading journal in the new area of synthetic biology, and the nodulisporic acid A research appeared in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the highest ranked chemistry journal in the world.

There are patents pending on both the MIDAS technology and the production of nodulisporic acid A, both of which have been developed with funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment and Fulbright NZ.

Victoria researchers engineer new proteins to help solve global problems

6 April 2018

Researchers from Victoria University of Wellington’s Ferrier Research Institute have made significant progress in the science of protein engineering, achieving a breakthrough which has implications for tackling global problems from diseases to climate change.

Dr Effie Fan and Professor Emily Parker, along with other researchers from the Maurice Wilkins Centre, have created a new approach to protein engineering inspired by natural evolution. Using their method, they have successfully combined different parts of natural proteins to form new proteins.

“Successfully combining different parts of natural proteins to create new, fully functioning proteins is something that has never been done before,” says Dr Fan. “By using fully functioning parts of a natural protein as a starting point, we can make the process of protein engineering much faster and more effective. This is a huge step forward for protein engineering.”

This research has implications for everything from vaccines to crop growth.

“Everything in nature, from humans to bacteria, is made of proteins, and through evolution proteins can change in a certain way to solve certain problems – like making people immune to a disease,” says Dr Fan. “But evolution is a slow process, and there are some problems – like cancer, viral epidemics, and climate change – that we don’t have time for nature to solve on its own. The goal of our field of science is to manipulate proteins in the lab to solve these problems soon.”

Dr Fan and Professor Parker’s research has specific implications for antibiotic development.

The Victoria University research team used proteins that are part of the bacteria that cause tuberculosis and gastric cancer in their research.

“Now that we can manipulate the proteins in these bacteria, we know more about how the proteins work and how they help the bacteria cause disease. We can use this knowledge to help create antibiotics to help fight these diseases, many of which are currently resistant to modern antibiotics.”

The proteins found in these specific bacteria are also found in many other living organisms. Because the proteins are so common, the techniques developed by the team could also be used to manipulate proteins in other ways to help with other global problems.

The research was recently published in the US National Academy of Science’s official scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, one of the most cited journals in the world across all fields of science. This publication comes hot on the heels of the opening of a new laboratory at the Ferrier Research Institute, run by Professor Parker. The laboratory will help the Ferrier Research Institute and the Maurice Wilkins Centre continue their work on antimicrobial resistance and engineering new biological solutions to challenges in animal and human health.

Ferrier Institute PhD student featured in Indian Press

31 January 2018

Image of PhD Student Juby Matthews pipetting a sample

Originally from India, Juby Mathew was drawn to Wellington, and the Ferrier Research Institute, for the opportunity to further her interest in fields of immunology and cancer vaccines. She is currently studying for a PhD in the group of Professor Gavin Painter. Recently, her story was picked up by the Indian newspaper DNA (Daily News and Analysis).

Research Honours wins “richly deserved” for trio

10 October 2017

Three Victoria University of Wellington academics have been recognised in the 2017 New Zealand Research Honours awards, including Ferrier's Professor Peter Tyler who was awarded the MacDiarmid Medal.

Presented annually by Royal Society Te Apārangi, the Research Honours celebrate the outstanding achievements and excellence of New Zealand researchers.

Professor Peter Tyler from Victoria’s Ferrier Research Institute has been awarded the 2017 MacDiarmid Medal, which recognises outstanding scientific research that demonstrates the potential for application for human benefit.

Along with collaborators at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, Professor Tyler has helped to design and synthesise a raft of potential new drug candidates that target the enzymes of many diseases including cancer, gout, psoriasis, malaria and Alzheimer’s disease.

One of these candidates is an active ingredient behind a new oral drug, Mundesine®, which treats patients with a specific type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In March this year, Japan became the first country to approve Mundesine®, licensed by BioCryst Pharmaceuticals Inc. under an exclusive licence with Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Viclink, Victoria University’s commercialisation office.

The selection panel praised Professor Tyler’s revolutionary drug design technology, and said it would likely lead to several more medical breakthroughs and the saving of many hundreds of lives.

Professor Tyler was elected a Fellow of Royal Society Te Apārangi in 2008 and a Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry in 2010.

“I’m very pleased to receive the award,” says Professor Tyler. “I have been privileged to work with outstanding collaborators and fellow chemists at the Ferrier Research Institute to make this happen.”

World-renowned geologist Professor Colin Wilson from Victoria’s School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences receives the 2017 Rutherford Medal for his research into understanding supervolcanoes and the hazards they pose.

Emeritus Professor Laurie Bauer from Victoria’s School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies has been awarded the 2017 Humanities Aronui Medal.

Victoria’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Grant Guilford congratulated the three Victoria recipients on their outstanding efforts.

“We are extremely proud of Professors Wilson and Tyler, and Emeritus Professor Bauer, for their awards. It is richly deserved recognition for their hard work, and reflects the world-leading, impactful and innovative research taking place at Victoria.”

Professor Guilford added that the University was delighted and proud at the announcement that Victoria’s Provost, Professor Wendy Larner, will be the next President of Royal Society Te Apārangi. Professor Larner will take over as President on 1 July 2018, becoming only the second ever female President of the Society’s Council.

Ferrier Research Institute successful in the latest MBIE funding round

13 September 2017

Dr Simon Hinkley

A Ferrier Research Institute programme is among five successful Victoria projects in this year’s science investment round.

Dr Simon Hinkley from Victoria’s Ferrier Research Institute is leading a team that has been awarded $6.2 million over five years to generate new compounds for use in products that accelerate bone and tissue repair.

“Current therapies have undesirable side effects, low efficacy, high cost, low biological stability and dubious overall benefit,” explains Dr Hinkley.

“Our project will explore the use of complex sugars called heparan sulfates in producing more effective and rapid tissue regeneration. Heparan sulfate has been shown to be an essential ‘match-maker’ in coordinating growth factors that mediate the repair processes. With our partners at the University of Otago and in Singapore, we will build on our current research activities to develop materials that assist in tissue repair processes.”

Victoria’s performance in this year’s Endeavour Fund represents 12 percent of the total $248 million awarded to 68 projects from 17 universities, research institutes and other organisations.

“This is a stunning result for Victoria and testament to the quality of our science and technology at New Zealand’s number one-ranked university for research excellence,” says Professor Mike Wilson, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for the Faculty of Science.

Professor Kate McGrath, Vice-Provost (Research), says the result reflects the exceptional leadership of Victoria's researchers in the scholarly community and beyond.

“Our researchers are utilising an expanding base of fundamental science and engineering to create valuable solutions to global problems and to boost high-value manufacturing in New Zealand.”

New insights in the fight against antibiotic resistance

Scott Cameron

A looming antibiotic resistance crisis, which could turn even cuts and scrapes into life-threatening events, has put the pressure on scientists around the world to come up with solutions.

Some scientists—including researchers at Victoria University of Wellington—are focusing on discovering entirely new antibiotics. But innovative work at Victoria is also exploring ways to stop the demise of current antibiotics in the first place.

Dr Scott Cameron is a chemist at Victoria’s Ferrier Research Institute who is researching the process of antibiotic resistance, particularly the role of enzymes called lactamases.

“A lactamase effectively chews up penicillin and related antibiotics, which means the drug can no longer do its job of preventing bacteria from building their cell walls,” explains Dr Cameron. “If there’s a lactamase around, then penicillin isn’t going to be much use to you at all.”

He says bacteria are fairly efficient at finding ways of beating new threats, too. “Every time a new antibiotic is made and used, bacteria find a way of getting rid of it. Penicillin-like drugs have been met with lactamases—enzymes which degrade these antibiotics—thereby nullifying their effect,” he says.

“Recently we’ve started seeing metal-based lactamases, which are unaffected by current lactamase inhibitors. The one I’m particularly interested is a di-zinc lactamase, which was only discovered in 2009,” says Dr Cameron. “This metal-based lactamase is capable of destroying a broad range of different antibiotics, including penicillins, cephalosporins, and even carbapenems, which are usually a last resort antibiotic.

Using a technique called transition-state analysis, Dr Cameron hopes to investigate the precise nature of the process in which lactamase enzymes convert antibiotics to harmless by-products.

“I want to examine the fleeting moment—just a few quadrillionths of a second, in fact—in the enzymatic reaction when the antibiotic is most tightly bound by the lactamase,” he says.

The information gleaned from this technique can then be used as a kind of ‘blueprint’ for possible lactamase inhibitors.

“If we can figure out what that so-called transition state is, and make a stable mimic of that moment, then we would hopefully have a very potent inhibitor of that enzyme—for this study that would mean antibiotics such as penicillin can continue to be effective.”

Using transition-state analogues as a way to inhibit enzymes is a technique that is already well established, including the recently approved drug Mundesine®, which was first synthesised at the Ferrier Research Institute and is now used in the treatment of T-cell lymphomas. Dr Cameron’s work would be the first time the technique has been applied to lactamases, and could be a promising solution to the threat of antibiotic resistance.

“There’s an urgent need to be doing this work,” explains Dr Cameron. “We are trending towards a post-antibiotic age where common infections could kill us or surgery could be dangerous—that’s a pretty scary situation to be in.”

Dr Cameron says Victoria University—and the Ferrier Research Institute in particular—is a great place to do this research. “We have the expertise in this field, and state-of-the art facilities,” he says. “Victoria also has an amazing ongoing collaboration with Professor Vern Schramm in the United States, who is a world leader in the science of transition-state analysis.”

Advancing a potential treatment for breast cancer

28 July 2017

Computer render of a dividing breast cancer cell’

“Every bit helps to fight this horrible disease,” says a Victoria University of Wellington scientist who is developing a potential new treatment for advanced breast cancer.

Dr Olga Zubkova from Victoria’s Ferrier Research Institute was recently awarded $100,000 from the Breast Cancer Foundation New Zealand (BCFNZ) for her research.

Advanced (metastatic) breast cancer—for which there is currently no cure—is cancer that has spread beyond the breast to other organs in the body.

Dr Zubkova’s research targets a specific enzyme called heparanase.

“Heparanase is a key influencer in the malignant behaviour of cancers like breast cancer,” says Dr Zubkova.

“Heparanase weakens the elements that hold cells together, and enables cancer cells to escape by breaking down tissue barriers. This means the primary tumour grows faster and spreads to remote parts of the body, becoming very difficult to treat.

“There are currently no therapeutically effective treatments that target heparanase available on the market."

Dr Zubkova plans to suppress heparanase using sugar-based compounds that she has developed over the past 15 years.

“These bio-inspired compounds have already been shown to significantly hinder the spread of blood and bone cancer in an animal model,” she says.

“Our approach is to use the compounds to change the tumour’s environment in a breast cancer setting and restrict tumour growth, and ultimately the spread of cancer to other tissues, such as brain and liver.”

Dr Zubkova’s project will bring together experts in medicinal chemistry and cancer biology from Victoria and Auckland universities in New Zealand, the University of Liverpool in England, and Uppsala University in Sweden.

Fellow scientists at the Ferrier Research Institute are also developing a potential breast cancer vaccine, which works by activating tumour-targeting immune cells. This research was supported by a five-year, $500,000 partnership with BCFNZ earlier this year.

Professor Richard Furneaux wins supreme award at the 2017 KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards

13 July 2017

Professor Furneaux holding the Supreme Award and the Researcher Entrepreneur award at the 2017 Kiwinet Research Commercialisation Awards

Professor Furneaux, Director of Victoria’s Ferrier Research Institute, was presented with the award for overall excellence in all core areas of research commercialisation at a ceremony in Auckland.

He also took home the Baldwins Researcher Entrepreneur Award, which recognises a researcher who has made outstanding contributions to business innovation or has created innovative businesses in New Zealand through technology licencing, start-up creation or by providing expertise to support business innovation.

Professor Furneaux has been recognised for entrepreneurial endeavours that have generated tens of millions of dollars of economic activity for New Zealand over the past 25 years.

Starting out as a synthetic chemist, today Professor Furneaux leads a team of 40 scientists at the Ferrier Institute, whose innovative medical drug compounds have been licensed to international pharmaceutical and agrochemical companies, and an exciting new start-up.

The judges described Professor Furneaux as “a world class research entrepreneur”, and his story as “one of enormous achievement”.

“It’s a real honour to receive these awards for myself and our talented team of scientists and collaborators,” says Professor Furneaux. “Also, a big shout out to the commercial partners who successfully applied our science.”

The Institute’s most successful commercial deal, in conjunction with Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, is its 16-year relationship with United States-based, NASDAQ-listed company BioCryst Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

Under this licensing deal, four generations of novel compounds, covered by over 160 granted patents, have yielded six lead drug candidates with applications as diverse as cancer, gout, psoriasis, transplant rejection and malaria.

One of these candidates is an active ingredient behind a new oral drug, Mundesine®, which treats patients with a specific type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In March this year, Japan became the first country to approve Mundesine®, licensed by BioCryst Pharmaceuticals Inc. under an exclusive licence with Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Viclink, Victoria University’s commercialisation office.

Professor Furneaux says he’s thrilled that his team’s successes with BioCryst spurred significant commercial benefit to New Zealand through the establishment of GlycoSyn, a Wellington-based manufacturer of pharmaceutical ingredients.

“We are always looking for areas where we can apply our chemistry in ways that differentiate us so that we can patent the intellectual property we create for the future benefit of both Victoria University and New Zealand as a whole.”

Collaborations key in Victoria’s commercial success

Victoria University of Wellington is celebrating its success in science and innovation with two finalists in the 2017 KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards.

Professor Richard Furneaux, director of Victoria’s Ferrier Research Institute, has been named a Researcher Entrepreneur finalist, and Viclink, Victoria’s commercialisation office, is a finalist in the Commercial Deal category.

Professor Furneaux has been recognised for his entrepreneurial endeavours which have generated tens of millions of dollars of economic activity for New Zealand over the past 25 years.

Starting out as a synthetic chemist, today Professor Furneaux leads a team of 40 scientists at the Ferrier Institute, whose innovations include the synthesis of an active ingredient in anti-lymphoma drug Mundesine®. Last month, Japan became the first country to approve Mundesine®, licensed by BioCryst Pharmaceuticals Inc. under an exclusive licence with Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Viclink.

Research by the Ferrier team has also led to a breakthrough synthetic vaccine to treat cancer, allergies and autoimmune diseases. The Institute recently announced a five-year, $500,000 research partnership with the Breast Cancer Foundation New Zealand, which will see Ferrier scientists progress a potential breast cancer vaccine.

The Baldwins Researcher Entrepreneur Award recognises an entrepreneurial researcher who has made outstanding contributions to business innovation or has created innovative businesses in New Zealand through technology licencing, start-up creation or by providing expertise to support business innovation.

Viclink has also been named as a finalist for KiwiNet’s PwC Commercial Deal Award.

Viclink and the University’s Ferrier Institute have maintained a successful, 16-year relationship with United-States based NASDAQ-listed company BioCryst.

In conjunction with partners at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, the licensing deal with BioCryst has resulted in more than 160 patents and six lead drug candidates with applications as diverse as cancer, gout, psoriasis, transplant rejection and malaria.

The relationship with BioCryst has yielded significant commercial benefit to New Zealand, the flow on creation of research jobs, and the establishment of GlycoSyn, a Wellington-based manufacturer of pharmaceutical ingredients.

Viclink has played a key role in the relationship between Victoria University and BioCryst.

The PwC Commercial Deal Award celebrates excellence in research commercialisation delivering outstanding innovation performance and the potential for generating significant economic impact for New Zealand.

KiwiNet is a consortium of fifteen universities, crown research institutes and a crown entity established to boost commercial outcomes from publicly-funded research.

The winners will be announced on Thursday 13 July in Auckland.

® MUNDESINE is a registered trade mark (in Japan) of Mundipharma AG.

Victoria research leads to new drug for hard-to-treat lymphomas

19 April 2017

Peter Tyler standing next to Richard Furneaux in Ferrier lab

Japan has become the first country to approve an anti-lymphoma drug developed following initial research from Victoria University of Wellington.

The new oral drug, called Mundesine®, treats patients with a type of lymphoma called peripheral T-cell lymphoma (PTCL) — a group of aggressive diseases that accounts for 10 to 15 percent of all cases of non-Hodgkin lymphomas.

The active ingredient in the drug Mundesine®, forodesine hydrochloride, was first synthesised by Professors Peter Tyler and Richard Furneaux at Victoria’s Ferrier Research Institute, and first conceived by long-time collaborator Professor Vern Schramm from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

The drug has been approved by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare following 19 clinical trials.

“I’m very proud,” says Professor Tyler. “We’ve been working on this science for 20 years, and used a rational approach to design this drug. We resolved some complex chemistry and it’s great that, following this approval, the drug is now a step closer to being available.

“In some cancers, like lymphoma, T-cells, a type of white blood cell, replicate uncontrollably. This drug inhibits the enzyme PNP (purine nucleoside phosphorylase), causing a metabolic imbalance in the T-cells that triggers cell death. The approval of Mundesine® provides further treatment options for patients with PTCL.”

Mundesine® was licensed by BioCryst Pharmaceuticals Inc., under an exclusive licence with Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Viclink, Victoria University’s commercialisation office. BioCryst subsequently entered into an exclusive sub-licensing agreement with Mundipharma to develop and commercialise forodesine in the field of oncology.

The drug has been specifically approved for patients whose PTCL has relapsed (recurred) or is refractory (resistant to treatment). Few effective treatments have been available for these conditions. Those PTCL patients who relapse following chemotherapy currently live an average of only six more months.

The research to identify the active ingredient (forodesine hydrochloride) of the Mundesine® drug product was carried out with funding support for the Ferrier Research Institute from New Zealand government agencies, and for the Albert Einstein College of Medicine from the United States General Medical Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

® MUNDESINE is a registered trade mark (in Japan) of Mundipharma AG.

Five-year research partnership targets breast cancer vaccine

21 March 2017

A vaccine for breast cancer is on the horizon, thanks to a new partnership between Victoria University of Wellington’s Ferrier Research Institute and the Breast Cancer Foundation New Zealand (BCFNZ).

The five-year research partnership will see BCFNZ give the Ferrier Institute $500,000 to progress a significant breakthrough made by chemists at the Institute to create a life-saving breast cancer vaccine.

Ferrier Research Institute chemists are making gains in the area of cancer immunotherapy—described by leading journal Science as the ‘Breakthrough of the Year’ in 2013.

The Institute is developing a synthetic cancer vaccine technology that can activate tumour-specific T cells, producing a targeted immune response. This synthetic cancer vaccine causes rejection of cancer in several types of animal models.

Ferrier Institute director Professor Richard Furneaux says the technology is almost there. “We just need to get it to the next level of testing—human clinical trials.”

Professor Gavin Painter, who leads the chemistry team at Ferrier, says the support of BCFNZ is crucial.

“Getting a new therapy to human clinical trials requires significant investment, and an intensive campaign of chemistry, biology and regulatory compliance.

“Our success to date has been made possible because we work with the exceptional immunology research group led by Professor Ian Hermans at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research here in Wellington, a relationship built up in a seven-year strategic collaboration.”

Evangelia Henderson, chief executive at BCFNZ says: “We went looking for a research partner who would give us the best shot of moving toward our vision of zero deaths from breast cancer. We were blown away by the calibre of the Ferrier team, the work they’d already done in the exciting field of immunotherapy and vaccines, and the strength of their international partnerships. It was a no-brainer for us.”

Cancer immunotherapy has caused a paradigm shift in cancer treatment, with a focus on targeting the body’s own immune system to fight cancer cells rather than introducing toxic agents to attack tumours directly. This line of research has led to the production of cancer vaccines which are showing promising results when used in certain situations; they are well tolerated by the body, have fewer side effects than current chemotherapy treatments and may be more effective in the long-term.

The successful immunotherapy treatment platform pioneered at Ferrier in collaboration with the Malaghan Insitute of Medical Research, has led to the establishment of biotechnology company Avalia Immunotherapies, which aims to commercialise the vaccine technology to help patients. Avalia’s chief executive officer is Victoria alumna Dr Shivali Gulab, a former NZBIO Young Bioscientist of the Year who is based in New York driving the progress of the vaccine technology towards human clinical trials.

For 20 years the Ferrier Research Institute has had an extensive working relationship with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York which has resulted in successful drug trials. These include some of the most powerful enzyme inhibitors ever reported including Forodesine as a targeted therapy for a variety of haematological cancers, and Ulodesine as an orally available drug to treat severe gout.

Pioneering drug discovery and development in Africa

23 September 2016

Kelly Chibali delivering his Ferrier Lecture

A leading South African scientist’s recent public lecture at Victoria University of Wellington brought to light Africa’s growing expertise in health innovation.

Dr Kelly Chibale, professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and founding director of the UCT Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D), led a team that has discovered two new anti-malaria compounds with potential to contribute to the treatment, eradication and prevention of malaria.

The compound referred to as UCT943 is the second drug candidate to come out of the collaboration led by H3D involving the Switzerland-based Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) and an international network of partners. The first drug candidate, MMV048, has already entered the clinical trial stage.

The preclinical assessment of UCT943 is expected to take around 18 months, after which it is hoped it will progress into safety studies in human volunteers.

“Diseases are complex problems, and solving complex problems requires dedicated interdisciplinary teams with integrated skills,” says Dr Chibale. “Drug discovery projects truly belong to the whole team as opposed to an individual. At H3D we’ve set up these integrated interdisciplinary teams and that is what allows us to move a drug from the lab to the clinic.”

H3D is also targeting tuberculosis drug discovery and antimicrobial resistance. It is Africa’s first integrated drug discovery and development centre, and has grown to a team of over 50 since its launch in 2010.

Dr Chibale says he is challenging the notion that Africa is not a source of health innovation.

“Drug discovery research and development is not about doing everything. With H3D we’ve chosen to focus on a platform that allows us to take a molecule from the laboratory to the clinic, and to build our expertise and knowledge around that.

“We’re doing this well now and have managed to attract very experienced scientists from the western world, who have come to our labs in Africa from pharmaceutical companies in the United States and Europe, because they've seen that they can really contribute because we have the right environment.”

Dr Chibale gave his lecture at Victoria University as part of a visit to Victoria’s Ferrier Research Institute.

“A large part of my trip was a fact-finding mission—I wanted to see if there are ways we can work together in the future,” says Dr Chibale.

“There are real overlaps in terms of what H3D and Ferrier are trying to do. Like Ferrier, H3D is embedded within a university. The university environment provides flexibility and creativity.

“Research makes a greater impact when it is translated, and there are innovation aspects to it. It’s about how can we take advantage of the academic environment and academic ideas to provide translational aspects to basic science as in translational medicine wherein it’s not just going from the lab to the patient, but also from the patient back to the laboratory.”

Ferrier Research Institute Director, Professor Richard Furneaux says he also sees similarities between the H3D initiative in Cape Town and what Ferrier is striving for in Wellington.

“Dr Chibale’s visit was initiated by Chris Whelan, chief executive of Wellington’s Regional Economic Development Agency (WREDA). Dr Chibale’s rapid acceleration of effort through major partnerships and financial support for infrastructure from the South African Government is an inspiration.”

You can listen to a radio interview with Dr Chibale on Radio New Zealand’s Saturday Morning hosted by Kim Hill.

Ferrier-led research wins multi-million-dollar funding

15 September 2016

A Ferrier Research Institute-led project to develop a new cancer immunotherapy vaccine has been awarded nearly $10 million in funding in the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's 2016 Endeavour Fund science investment round.

Led by Professor Gavin Painter from Victoria’s Ferrier Research Institute, the five-year project is being run in collaboration with researchers from the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, based at Victoria, and the Universities of Auckland and Otago.

The team will develop vaccine technologies to complement existing cancer immunotherapies.

“The clinical success of the cancer immunotherapies Opdivo and Keytruda has seen their recent approval in New Zealand for the treatment of advanced melanoma,” says Professor Painter.

“Present immunotherapies, such as monoclonal antibody drugs like Keytruda, work by blocking proteins on immune cells that are preventing an immune response. They are difficult and expensive to manufacture, however, and only a minority of patients respond. They will likely work best when combined with other cancer therapies.”

Professor Painter says the newly-funded research project seeks to address some of these issues through the development of complementary immunotherapies.

“The aim of our research is to develop an off-the-shelf, low cost, non-toxic cancer vaccine. Based on our research into key cellular and molecular interactions, we hope to generate new vaccines that elicit stronger and more precise responses.

“We will use clever chemical approaches in the manufacture of these products, which will be made synthetically, in a controlled environment. This will ensure better patient responses and lower production costs.”

The team hopes the project will also benefit New Zealand economically, says Ferrier Research Institute Director, Professor Richard Furneaux.

“With this funding support we’re able to not only develop and manufacture these vaccines in New Zealand, but can also work to retain the early phase clinical trials through additional local private investment.

“The project will tap into New Zealand’s biomedical support infrastructure, including Lower Hutt-based Avalia Immunotherapies—an early stage cancer vaccine development company—and GlycoSyn for pharmaceutical manufacturing.”

It’s an exciting time for cancer therapies, and one of rapid change, says Professor Painter.

“Research into understanding the immune system has created a fundamental shift in how we think about traditional, long-standing, cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, and how these treatments combine with new drugs and immunotherapies that work by targeting the immune system.

“It’s exciting to be able to combine our knowledge and expertise with other New Zealand-based researchers and clinicians in translational drug development.”

Promising Alzheimer’s research takes a step forward

1 August 2016

Photo of Dr Ralf Schwӧrer, Professor Peter Tyler and Dr Olga Zubkova from Victoria University’s Ferrier Research Institute

Scientists from Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Liverpool have been awarded more than $850,000 to advance a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

Professor Peter Tyler and Drs Olga Zubkova and Ralf Schwӧrer from Victoria’s Ferrier Research Institute, alongside long-time collaborator Professor Jerry Turnbull at the University of Liverpool, have been granted $392,000 from KiwiNet’s PreSeed Accelerator Fund.

The team have also been awarded a grant from the United Kingdom’s Alzheimer’s Society worth more than $450,000 (£260,000 GBP), as well as a New Zealand Federation of Women's Institutes research grant of $15,000 for Dr Zubkova.

The funding will be used to develop drug candidates discovered from research the team has been working on since 2008.

Every 60 seconds someone in the world develops Alzheimer’s disease, which causes an inability to retain new information and difficulty in recognising people and places.

“New drugs that can effectively halt or delay the progression of the disease are urgently needed and this funding is invaluable to progressing our work,” says Professor Tyler.

The approach harnesses the natural ability of complex sugars called heparan sulfates to control the degradation of proteins in the brain that cause memory loss.

The scientists have discovered how to make small heparan sulfates chemically in the lab, and found some of them have the ability to target an enzyme that creates small toxic compounds in the brain believed to be responsible for Alzheimer’s disease.

“Our molecules are targeted against the formation of these compounds called amyloids. Amyloids disrupt the normal function of cells, leading to the progressive memory loss that is characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Professor Tyler.

“The molecules involve sophisticated chemistry processes and have potential to slow or stop progression of the disease. No one else in the world is using this heparan sulfate approach”.

“We also designed a more simplified core for the molecules by replacing sugar fragments with smaller and cheaper carbon versions. The new products will be easier to make, and allow us to prepare larger amounts for testing,” says Dr Zubkova.

Early stages of the research were funded by New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

Professor Tyler expects the remainder of the preclinical tests to take two years, and if successful, the end product can be launched in clinical trials.

The research being developed is exciting, says Anne Barnett, General Manager Commercialisation at Viclink, the University’s commercialisation office.

“There are other drugs currently undergoing clinical trials that target the same mechanism, however our drug candidates work differently and are expected to have far fewer side effects”.

KiwiNet is a consortium of research organisations working together to increase the scale and impact of science-based innovation. KiwiNet recently received $10.3 million of new investment over the next three years, under a new allocation of MBIE’s PreSeed investment, to help transform cutting edge science into commercial reality.

Visiting scientist returns to complete research started 42 years ago

27 June 2016

Photo of Dr Nadarajah Vethaviyasar

For the last three months Victoria University of Wellington’s Ferrier Research Institute has been host to a visiting scholar with a special connection to the research institute.

Dr Nadarajah Vethaviyasar obtained his PhD in 1971 under the supervision of Professor Robin Ferrier, for whom the Institute is named, and worked with him as postdoctoral researcher until 1973. As a visiting scientist he has had the opportunity to pick up strands of research that was started shortly before he left and has remained unfinished since.

“Professor Ferrier was a keen scientist, and a role model for many of us. He had a passion for synthetic methodologies using unsaturated sugars and he dragged me into it as well. It has been a wonderful opportunity to come back to Wellington and continue his work in this field after all this time.”

Dr Vethaviyasar’s research while at the Ferrier Research Institute is concerned with the use of inexpensive and readily available carbohydrate templates to synthesise new, more complex compounds.

“By using carbohydrates as chiral starting materials we can transform them into novel materials which have potential in a wide range of applications, such as in developing antibiotics. When I was originally starting this research with Professor Ferrier forty years ago the focus was on understanding the chemistry, today there is much more emphasis on how we use the chemistry for affecting biological outcomes.”

Dr Vethaviyasar’s visit was funded by the prestigious Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, that provides funding for British citizens from all backgrounds to travel overseas in pursuit of new and better ways of tackling a wide range of the current challenges facing the UK.

Ferrier Research Institute Director, Professor Richard Furneaux says that since the Institute became part of Victoria University in early 2012 they have had the opportunity to host several visiting scientists for short-term collaborations.

“We have had a number of approaches resulting in successful research collaborations with both practising scientists and postgraduate students. Dr Vethaviyasar’s connection to the institute, its namesake, and nature of the work—continuing Professor Ferrier’s unfinished research—has made this collaboration particularly special. It has been 42 years since we first met when I joined Robin’s group in the Chemistry Department at Victoria to start my own PhD.”

2015 summary for Ferrier Banner

2015 marked the second year since the establishment of the Ferrier Research Institute. The year was characterised by successes on many fronts, as our scientists continue our work on developing better drugs, industrial materials and manufacturing technologies.

Staff

Promotions

Professors Gary Evans, Gavin Painter and Peter Tyler assumed their roles as professors while Professor Bradley Williams accepted the offer of such a position later in the year. Professor Williams was also appointed to the role of Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Research at Victoria University.

New staff

We welcomed five new members to our scientific and technical staff—Dr Tanzeel Arif, David Burr, Dr Michael Fraser, Katie Moore and Dr Farah Lamiable-Oulaidi. We retained the services of Janet Colson from Victoria’s Development Office to assist with outreach to philanthropists.

Saying goodbye

We bade farewell after many years of sustained contributions to Dr Douglas Crump on retirement, and to Dr Anthony Woolhouse following his untimely death.

Awards and recognition

  • Professors Gary Evans and Bradley Williams were appointed as assessors of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) Smart Ideas bids.
  • Professor Richard Furneaux served on the Rutherford Discovery Fellowships panel.
  • Dr Phillip Rendle was jointly awarded the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry Shimadzu Prize for Excellence in Industrial and Applied Chemistry alongside Dr Paul Benjes of GlycoSyn.
  • Drs Simon Hinkley, Ralf Schwoerer and Olga Zubkova were inducted as Fellows of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry.
  • Dr Ralf Schwoerer and Professor Bradley Williams serve as committee members of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry, Wellington Branch, and Professor Williams also serves on the Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Wellington Branch.
  • Dr Shivali Gulab was recognised as the NZBIO Young Scientist of the Year by the New Zealand Biotechnology Industry Association.
  • Dr Ian Sims was appointed as an Editorial of International Journal of Biological Macromolecules and Dr Olga Zubkova as a Review Editor for Frontiers in Chemistry.

Research funding success

  • Professor Peter Tyler was awarded a Marsden Grant on “Synthetic sulfated saccharides in cell signalling” valued at $790,000.
  • Three MBIE Smart Ideas grants—each valued at $1 million—were awarded to Dr Phillip Rendle for “Treating polyglutamine diseases with synthetic dendrimers—PEEs and Qs in the mind” with Professor Russell Snell at University of Auckland, to Professor Gary Evans for “Biofilm Resistant Materials” with researchers at University of Otago and Callaghan Innovation, and to Professor Bradley Williams for “Anti Foul Marine Paints”. In addition, Dr Ian Sims is an Associate Investigator (AI) on the Smart Idea grant “Functional Formula” of Professor Gerald Tannock at the University of Otago.
  • Dr Simon Hinkley secured Kiwinet funding of $120,000 for his research entitled “Manufacture of Semi-synthetic Heparan Sulfate”.

In the classroom

  • Staff contributed four sets of lectures to Victoria’s CHEM 424 and CHEM 425 courses. These lectures broadened the scope of content in these courses and gave students valuable access to Ferrier staff.
  • Staff supervised or co-supervised three PhD students and one Master’s student. In addition, we hosted nine summer students who started their work in November—three with industry co-funding.
  • Professor Bradley Williams, together with colleagues from Victoria’s Schools of Biological Sciences and Chemical and Physical Sciences, drove the creation of a new taught Master’s programme in Drug Discovery and Development. This programme fills a gap in the Australasian region and is unique in its offering, providing students an end-to-end perspective of the drug discovery, development and commercialisation phases.

In the news

  • Our achievements and activities featured in no fewer than nine domestic and international news items, ranging from publications such as New Zealand Herald and Dominion Post to international publicity in the American Chemical Society’s Chemical and Engineering News, a Spotlight feature in ACS Chemical Biology and a feature on Avalia Immunotherapies Ltd in Bioworld Today. Avalia has been set up to commercialise research stemming from a key collaboration between Professors Gavin Painter (Ferrier) and Ian Hermans (Malaghan Institute of Medical Research).

Donations and support

In 2015 we invited the donor community to partner in our mission to enhance health and wellbeing through improved treatment of serious diseases. We are very grateful to our group of generous donors who have enabled us to expand our research programmes in breast cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and drug discovery. In particular we would like to thank The Stewart Charitable Trust, The Genesis Oncology Trust and the Infinity Foundation for:

  • The Stewart Charitable Trust’s continued support of the PhD studies of Amira Brackovic.
  • The Infinity Foundation’s support for a research project led by Professor Gary Evans on “Helping develop new techniques to make drug treatments more targeted and less toxic”.
  • Genesis Oncology Trust’s support to Professor Gavin Painter on “Fat and sugar to the rescue—lipoglycan cancer vaccines”.

Scientific activities

Research papers

We produced 37 papers in leading international journals. Key articles include:

  • R.J. Anderson, B. J. Compton, C.-w. Tang, A. Authier-Hall, C.M. Hayman, G.W. Swinerd, R. Kowalczyk, P. Harris, M.A. Brimble, D.S. Larsen, O. Gasser, R. Weinkove, I.F. Hermans and G.F. Painter, NKT Cell-Dependent Glycolipid-Peptide Vaccines with Potent Antitumour Activity, Chemical Science, 6 (2015) 5120-5127.
  • S. Wang, S.A. Cameron, K. Clinch, G.B. Evans, Z. Wu, P.C. Tyler and V.L. Schramm, Transition state analogues for Helicobacter pylori aminofutalosine nucleosidase, Journal of the American Chemical Society, 137 (2015) 14275-14280.
  • C.J. Tristram, J.M. Mason, D.B.G. Williams and S.F.R. Hinkley, Doubly Renewable Cellulose Polymer for Water-Based Coatings, ChemSusChem, 8 (2015) 63-66 (cover feature).
  • P.C. Tyler, S.E. Guimond, J.E. Turnbull and O.V. Zubkova, Single Entity Heparan Sulfate Glycomimetic Clusters for Therapeutic Applications, Angew. Chem. Int. Ed., 54 (2015) 2718-2723.

Conferences

Staff produced 12 conference contributions to domestic and international conferences, many as invited or plenary lectures.

Patents

Staff were named as inventors on two granted United States patents as well as two new patent applications, four International Patent (PCT) filings, and 10 that entered the national phase.

Collaborations

  • Our joint venture with GlycoSyn, a wholly owned unit of Callaghan Innovation, continues to be an asset to Ferrier. We completed $1 million of applied research and development contracts during the year for domestic and international clients.
  • Six staff members were appointed as Principal Investigators in the Centre for Biodiscovery at Victoria University.
  • Staff members actively collaborate with colleagues in seven universities or research institutes in three different countries.
  • A key “Chemical Immunology” collaboration was set up between Ferrier and the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research. This builds upon a growing number of individual collaborations between the staffs of these two institutes and a mutual recognition of the value of these collaborations.

Industry placements

Ferrier hosted three industry placements from AQUI-S New Zealand Ltd, Drikolor (D’Arcy Polychrome Ltd) and Otago Innovation Ltd. These placements give industry access to our world class facilities and cohort of scientists to help solve pressing commercial problems.

International placements

Drs Shivali Gulab and Scott Cameron are placed at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York.

Annual Ferrier lecture

Professor Larry Overman of the University of California, Irvine, delivered the 2015 Ferrier Lecture entitled “Natural Products Synthesis: Insights into Chemical Reactivity and Inspiration for New Antitumour Agents”. The lecture was attended by an audience of over 100.

Commercialisation activities

A new company—Avalia Immunotherapies Ltd—was established in April to advance intellectual property and product concepts for synthetic vaccines against cancer, with investment from PowerHouse Ventures, the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund, Malcorp, Otago Innovation Ltd and Viclink, Victoria University’s commercialisation office.

Ferrier's focus on the future

4 December 2015

Gary Evans, Phillip Rendle, Bradley Williams

From left, Professor Gary Evans, Dr Phillip Rendle and Professor Bradley Williams.

Three different projects focused on solving a variety of problems, which are being led by scientists at the Ferrier Research Institute, have been awarded a total of $3 million in Government funding to develop their commercial potential.

The scientists, Professor Gary Evans, Dr Phillip Rendle and Professor Bradley Williams, are each receiving $1 million over two years from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) through its Smart Ideas science investment round for 2015.

“New Zealand now has an incredibly competitive science funding system, with the smallest approval rates for proposals in the world. The major success by our Ferrier scientists and their research collaborators in this round speaks to the potential impact of the proposed projects and the quality of the ideas.”

Dr Phillip Rendle aims to produce a safe and effective treatment for some or all of the nine polyglutamine diseases, the most well-known of which is Huntington’s. These diseases are genetically inherited and rare, affecting around 1 in 10,000 people worldwide.

Dr Rendle says there is currently no cure for these diseases, just treatments for the symptoms, which typically emerge in mid-life and get progressively worse with age.

“I want to find a treatment using dendrimers, which are molecules that look like a heavily branched tree. Polyglutamine diseases are neurodegenerative diseases caused by the abnormal interaction of inherited mutated proteins. Our aim is to use dendrimers to disrupt this interaction to delay the onset age, which would effectively be a cure.”

Dr Rendle says he’ll be working with Professor Russell Snell from the University of Auckland, an expert in Huntington’s disease who will conduct biological testing of the materials being developed in the project.

Professor Gary Evans is developing materials that will reduce infections which sometimes require orthopaedic implants—such as hip or other joint replacements—to be removed.

Biofilms are produced by microorganisms and form a protective layer that adheres to surfaces. In the case of orthopaedic implants, the majority of post-surgical infections are caused by bacteria growing within a biofilm, which develops on the implant. Where a biofilm is allowed to form, these bacteria are protected from the patient’s immune system and antibiotic treatments.

Professor Evans says he and his team (which includes researchers from Callaghan Innovation and University of Otago) will try to engineer entirely new materials through coating titanium, which is used in the majority of modern orthopaedic implants, with molecules that stop biofilm formation.

“While removal of a joint is only necessary in 1-2% of cases, when that’s applied to 3.7 million such surgeries a year in the United States alone, preventing those infections would have a big impact and save a lot of money,” he says. “As the population ages and expects to be more mobile with the help of joint replacements, the issue is only going to become more pronounced.”

A new kind of paint that would stop barnacles and other organisms from accumulating on the hulls of marine vessels has the potential to revolutionise the shipping industry, according to Professor Bradley Williams.

“The growth of seaweed, barnacles and the like on ships is a major problem for marine industries. It creates lots of resistance, which means slower ships and requires as much as 30% more fuel to maintain shipping speeds for on-time delivery—that’s hard on both the financial bottom line and the environment. The ships need to be dry-docked while the encrustation is removed, which takes time and money. And if a ship is wrecked, the biocides which are currently used in paints to ward off encrustation end up leaching into the ecosystem.

“Mine is an extremely simple idea that brings together existing scientific principles in a new way. But the way this idea intends to solve the problem and the fact it won’t have any impact on the environment means it has the potential to be a game changer for paint manufacturers in the shipping industry.”

New weapons to battle bacterium behind ulcers

25 November 2015

Ferrier Research Institute scientists have developed what could possibly be an effective treatment against a common bacteria that causes stomach ulcers.

Helicobacter pylori is a bacteria that lives in the gut of more than 50 per cent of the world’s population, and is the most common bacterial infection worldwide. It is responsible for most peptic ulcers and is a significant risk factor for stomach cancer.

Professors Peter Tyler and Gary Evans, and Dr Keith Clinch from the Ferrier Research Institute, have worked with Professor Vern Schramm from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York to develop 10 antibiotic candidates for treating the bacteria.

“Developing a new antibiotic treatment for this bacteria has become important because of the development of resistance to drugs, the use of which tends to wipe out much of the gut’s healthy bacteria as well,” says Professor Tyler.

“Our compounds target a pathway specific to this bacterium, by blocking the enzyme methylthioadenosine nucleosidase and interfering with production of an essential bacterial membrane component. This means we can selectively halt the growth of this bacterium, while not affecting other beneficial gut microbes.”

All ten of the antibiotic candidates identified by the research team have been proven to prevent the bacteria’s growth at concentrations 16 to 2,000-fold lower than antibiotics commonly used to treat Helicobacter pylori infections.

The research team has spent the past three years in the lab synthesising and testing the drug candidates, with their findings recently published by the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

“This is a great achievement for Ferrier scientists, who have been heavily involved in the development of the compounds”, says Director of the Ferrier Research Institute Professor Richard Furneaux.

Ferrier science embedded in biotech drug development

28 July 2015

A new drug developed to treat a debilitating rare muscle-wasting disease and various kidney diseases, and manufactured using Ferrier Research Institute technology, has been acquired by an American company for commercial development.

New Zealand Pharmaceuticals Limited (NZP) announced last week that the Patent License and related Agreements for DEX-M74 has transferred to Altamira Bio, a subsidiary of NASDAQ-listed Fortress Biotech, who will run the clinical development and commercialisation.

DEX-M74, a natural carbohydrate, is currently in a Phase 2 clinical trial for treatment of the rare genetic disorder GNE myopathy, and a Phase 1 trial in patients with kidney disease is scheduled to begin in September.

GNE myopathy, formerly known as Hereditary Inclusion Body Myopathy, is a severe debilitating muscle wasting disease afflicting approximately 2,000 people worldwide. Most patients develop weakened arm, hand and leg muscles in their early 20s and eventually require a wheelchair.

“This is a significant milestone. NZP manufactures DEX-M74 using technology developed and licensed from Ferrier”, says Director of the Ferrier Research Institute Professor Richard Furneaux.

“In fact, the late Professor Robin Ferrier, after whom our Institute is named, was instrumental in developing the manufacturing process when he worked with us in his retirement.”

DEX-M74 has the potential to supplement the patient’s genetic insufficiency by restoring the sialic acid content of their diseased tissues to natural levels.

“Low sialic acid levels are also a feature of many major kidney diseases, so there is cautious optimism that it will have broader applications”, says Professor Furneaux.

Professor Furneaux says Palmerston North-based NZP is going from strength to strength. “We have had a long and productive relationship with NZP. Their Business Development Manager Dr Selwyn Yorke, who has championed the development of DEX-M74, was member of our research team at one point.”

New company to advance potential treatment for cancer and other diseases

21 May 2015

Professors Richard Furneaux and Gavin Painter standing in synthetic chemistry laboratory

An immunotherapy technology for treating cancer and other diseases, jointly developed by the Ferrier Research Institute and the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, has been patented and will be the initial focus of a newly-formed company.

Equity investment for the company, called Avalia Immunotherapies, is coming from New Zealand investment firm Powerhouse Ventures, the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund, Malcorp Biodiscoveries Limited and Victoria Link Limited (Victoria University’s commercialisation office). Additional support is also coming from Callaghan Innovation’s technology incubator programme, in the form of a repayable grant, and the Kiwi Innovation Network.

The director of the Ferrier Research Institute, Professor Richard Furneaux, says Avalia Immunotherapies will further develop the ground-breaking technology and aims to progress it to clinical trials.

The research has been led by Dr Gavin Painter from Ferrier Research and Dr Ian Hermans from the Malaghan Institute, and works as a therapeutic vaccine, activating a patient’s own immune system to recognise and attack cancer cells. Avalia Immunotherapy’s chief executive, Dr Shivali Gulab, says the decade-long research partnership between Dr Hermans and Dr Painter has led to a powerful technology platform that has been patented and licensed to the company for commercial development.

“The technology can be used to design new treatments for cancer, as well as infectious disease and allergy. Our initial focus will centre on cancer immunotherapy.”

Professor Furneaux says the potential benefits of the therapy are huge, not only for cancer patients but for the Wellington research community. “I’ve worked in this field since 1980 and this is the first time I’ve been involved in placing our intellectual property in a New Zealand start-up company—that’s how important this research is.

“This is also the beginning of what we hope is a birth of a biomedical initiative for the Wellington region—there’s fantastic biomedical infrastructure here, from research facilities to the excellent District Health Boards. We’re hoping Wellington will become just as well known for its biomedical research as it is for its film industry.”

Ferrier chemists to paint the town green

1 April 2015

Chemists from the Ferrier Research Institute have helped to develop a new sustainable-based paint.

In a five year collaboration with leading New Zealand paint manufacturing company Resene, the chemists have created a waterborne paint formulation based on cellulose—which originates from plant-matter—making it naturally derived and renewable.

Dr Simon Hinkley, Dr Cameron Tristram, Professor Bradley Williams and Jennifer Mason have been working on the product since 2009, when Resene won the ‘What’s Your Problem New Zealand’ research competition.

The competition, run by Industrial Research Ltd (now Callaghan Innovation), aimed to encourage businesses to develop innovative products and increase research and development.

As the winner, Resene was awarded $1 million to develop renewable paint with a goal of breaking the long-term reliance on gas and oil for high performance paints and addressing consumer demand for environmentally friendly products.

After a year’s research, Ferrier chemists were awarded funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to continue their investigation and have now developed a cellulose-based polymer for use as a paint coating.

Dr Hinkley says the paint is ‘doubly renewable’ as both of its major elements, cellulose and levulinic acid, are derived from plant material.

“Cellulose derivatives have been used for over a century in everything from explosives, to cigarette filters and wallpaper paste. The use of it is heavily embedded in society, so finding a new space in that area was very difficult,” says Dr Hinkley.

The research, published in the international journal ChemSusChem in January this year and featured on the cover, required a diversity of disciplines during its development.

“Dr Tristram, then a PhD student, successfully characterised a poorly soluble set of molecules, chemically converted them into something that had desirable physical attributes, and formulated it into a solution that gave the necessary properties”, says Dr Hinkley.

“He then proved it was compatible with the other 1,000 odd ingredients that make up the average tin of paint. It was a fascinating study touching on countless disciplines”.

Resene is now in the process of patenting the formulation. Nuplex, a New Zealand derived chemicals company, has come forward as a supporter of ongoing research at Ferrier.

Chemists make headway in Alzheimer's research

4 March 2015

Photo of the Alzheimer's research team

Ferrier Research Institute researchers have made a significant step forward in the search for a treatment for Alzheimer's disease.

Ferrier chemists have discovered a way to create cluster compounds for controlling the process that leads to generation of amlyloid plaques in the brain disease.

In 2013, the chemists synthesised a type of complex sugar for the same purpose, in challenging 55 step synthesis. The new approach to construct single-entity clusters reduces the number of reaction steps by half.

“We wanted to simplify the synthesis without losing the desired potency, which is quite challenging,” says project leader Dr Olga Zubkova. “The new products will be easier and cheaper to make, and allow us to prepare larger amounts for various testing.”

Through the joint project, Ferrier chemists Dr Zubkova and Professor Peter Tyler worked with Professor Jeremy Turnbull and Dr Scott Guimond from University of Liverpool to construct new heparan sulfate glycomimetics with critical functions that control the activity of the beta-secretase enzyme in the brain. This enzyme catalyses the first step in the generation of amyloid plaques in Alzheimer’s Disease.

“We designed and decorated a more simplified dendritic core by using multiple short, more readily synthesised fragments”, says Dr Zubkova. “Though we significantly simplified the structures we still saw impressive amounts of bioactivity.”

Dr Zubkova says this provides a highly desirable product that could be used in the development of new treatments.

“These molecules involve sophisticated chemistry processes and target enzymes extremely well, which is crucial for pharmaceutical application. It could be used in numerous treatments as the role of heparan sulfate becomes better understood.”

The research, published recently in prestigious international journal Angewandte Chemie, was supported by funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

The team has prepared a large collection of the compounds, with approximately 80 new intermediates as well as 11 final products as pure single molecules, something not previously achieved by any research group in the world.

“Others have tried by attaching highly charged fragments to the core which leads to a very complex mixture”, says Dr Zubkova. “But we’ve done it differently—we attach the fragments first before we sulfate them. We have, for the first time, prepared single-entity compounds presenting polyvalent display of heparan sulfate saccharides. That’s a point of difference and what makes our compounds unique.”

Ferrier chemists recognised by NZIC

20 November 2014
VUW staff and Paul Benjes from GlycoSyn receiving NZIC award

Dr Gavin Painter (Ferrier), Professor Bradley Williams (Ferrier), Dr Peter Tyler (Ferrier), Michele Prinsep (President of NZIC), Dr Phillip Rendle (Ferrier), Dr Susanne Boniface (School of Chemical and Physical Sciences), Dr Paul Benjes (GlycoSyn)

Dr Peter Tyler was awarded the Maurice Wilkins Centre Prize for Chemical Science, which recognises achievement in the field of industrial or applied chemistry.

Dr Tyler is a named inventor on over 30 patent families for new drug candidates, many of which have been licensed worldwide and have resulted in more than $20 million in royalty payments to New Zealand.

Professor Bradley Williams was awarded the NZIC's prize for Industrial and Applied Chemistry. The award recognises his work on the development and implementation of a new industrial process.

Dr Gavin Painter, Jenny Mason and Dr Phillip Rendle were made Fellows of the NZIC at the ceremony. Fellowships are awarded in recognition of substantial contributions to chemistry. They join Drs Gary Evans, Peter Tyler and Tony Woolhouse and Professors Bradley Williams and Richard Furneaux from the Ferrier Research Institute, who are already Fellows of the organisation.

“It’s very gratifying to see our professional chemists being recognised by their peers,” says Professor Mike Wilson, Victoria’s Pro Vice-Chancellor of Science.

“The Ferrier team has developed world-leading technologies in academic and industrial collaborations. These recognitions further solidify its position as New Zealand’s foremost applied organic chemistry institute.”

Innovation award for Ferrier Researchers

29 May 2014

Vikki Yeoman and Prof Richard Furneaux at Janssen Annual Excellence Awards

Accepting the award are Vikki Yeoman, General Manager of Industrial Biotechnologies at Callaghan Innovation and Dr Richard Furneaux, Director of the Ferrier Research Institute.

The award recognises their advances in developing a new orally available triple-negative breast cancer drug.

Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed female tissue cancer—nearly 12 percent of women are expected to develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetime. Triple-negative breast cancer accounts for 15 to 20 percent of all diagnosed breast cancers worldwide. Patients have a poorer prognosis and lower survival rate if they relapse after treatment, compared with other breast cancers.

The drug was developed in collaboration with Professor Vern Schramm’s team at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. The team analyses the transition states of enzymes involved in the growth and proliferation of cancers, while the Ferrier chemists design and synthesise inhibitor compounds to block the enzymes.

The long-standing collaboration has generated some of the most powerful enzyme inhibitors ever reported. Two of the agents developed by the partnership have already completed Phase IIb clinical trials for leukemia and gout.

The breast cancer drug (MTDIA) has been signed to Nanometics Lab, a United States-based private company, for development. Early stage clinical research will be funded through United States government grants, partnerships and venture capital investment. Nanometics will recruit a pharmaceutical partner for later stage clinical evaluations and commercialisation at an appropriate time.

The project team members were Drs Gary Evans, Shivali Gulab and Peter Tyler (Ferrier) and Peter Kelly (GlycoSyn) who are now refining a method to make more of the drug in larger quantities at GlycoSyn for the clinical trials.

Dr Richard Furneaux, Director of the Ferrier Research Institute was pleased to accept the award with Vikki Yeoman from Callaghan Innovation. “We anticipate that successful development of MTDIA as an oral, non-toxic therapeutic will provide a valuable treatment option for patients. It could be used as a single agent or in combination with existing chemotherapies following surgery or radiation.”

The judges noted, “This project is clearly well advanced and built on a solid long-term partnership between researchers in New Zealand and the USA. The team has an excellent track record in both publication and commercialisation. This project has good potential to succeed, backed by strong animal data and with a commercialisation arrangement in place.”

Dr Richard Furneaux wins a Welly

14 November 2013

Congratulations to Dr Richard Furneaux, who won the Science and Technology category at last night’s Wellingtonian of the Year Awards.

Dr Furneaux leads the carbohydrate chemistry team and is one of New Zealand’s leading scientists. His team’s work, which includes creating drugs for treating cancer and inflammatory illnesses, is highly regarded internationally.

“Being born and raised in Wellington I’m pleased to receive this award, which is a tribute to the work of the whole carbohydrate chemistry team. The research we do has real benefits for this country and the world,” he says.

The team is currently working on new product developments in cancer vaccines, anti-cancer drugs and anti-infective agents, in collaboration with the Malaghan Institute and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

Chemical method could help advance Alzheimer's treatment

30 May 2013

Scientists from the carbohydrate chemistry team and the University of Liverpool have developed a new chemical approach to help harness the natural ability of complex sugars to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

The team has used a new chemical method to produce a library of sugars, called heparan sulfates, which are known to control the formation of proteins in the brain that cause memory loss.

Heparan sulfates are found in nearly every cell of the body and are similar to the natural blood-thinning drug, heparin. The scientists have now discovered how to produce them chemically in the lab and found that some of these sugars can inhibit an enzyme that creates small proteins in the brain.

These proteins, called amyloids, disrupt the normal function of cells, leading to the progressive memory loss that is characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.

Professor Jerry Turnbull from the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Integrative Biology says, “We are targeting an enzyme, called BACE, which is responsible for creating the amyloid protein. The amyloid builds up in the brain in Alzheimer’s disease and causes damage."

BACE has proved to be a difficult enzyme to block, despite lots of effort by drug companies. “We are using a new approach, harnessing the natural ability of sugars, based on the blood-thinning drug heparin, to block the action of BACE.”

Dr Peter Tyler from the carbohydrate chemistry team, says the group has developed new chemical methods that have allowed them to make the largest set of these sugars produced to date.

“These new compounds will now be tested to identify those with the best activity and fewest possible side effects, as these have potential for development into a drug treatment that targets the underlying cause of this disease.”

More than 800,000 people in the United Kingdom and 50,000 in New Zealand live with dementia—over half of these have Alzheimer’s.

The estimated cost of treating Alzheimer’s disease in New Zealand in 2011 was $954 million, with deaths from the disease increasing by 346% from 1990 to 2010. Current treatments for dementia can help with symptoms, but no drugs are available to slow or stop the underlying disease.

This research, published in Chemistry A European Journal, was supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Medical Research Council, Alzheimer’s Research UK and New Zealand government research grants.

Scientists honoured for innovation with impact

22 November 2012

The achievements of the country’s leading scientists were honoured at the New Zealand Research Awards, administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ).Dr Richard Furneaux, leader of the internationally renowned carbohydrate chemistry team and RSNZ Fellow received the 2012 Thompson Medal for “his outstanding and inspirational leadership of carbohydrate chemistry research and its commercial application to biotechnology in New Zealand”.

In its citation, the Royal Society noted that Dr Furneaux had established an international reputation for the research generated by his team and developed commercial applications for research in New Zealand, which has been delivered to over 20 companies.

“Richard’s research, along with a long-standing collaboration with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, has resulted in the development of drugs with potential for treating cancer, gout and malaria,” the Society says.