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UK biotech consortium wins major grant for cutting-edge gene therapy

Published on 14/02/07 at 01:06pm

The EU has granted London-based Ark Therapeutics £1.65 million to fund research into using insect-derived viruses for producing genetic medicines.

Ark is to investigate the use of insect-derived viruses, known as baculoviruses (BVs), as agents for gene-based medicines to treat muscle disorders, age-related macular degeneration and prostate cancer.

The grant will support Ark's Baculogenes cutting-edge project, which is aimed at developing clinically suitable methods for the development and production of BVs for in vivo delivery for these diseases.

Ark will administer and lead the research project, providing gene-based technology and expertise from its London and Finland bases, while collaborating with researchers in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Portugal.

Delivering therapeutic DNA into cells is considered to be one of the most promising platforms under development for treating a large number of diseases, ranging from genetic disorders to degenerative symptoms as well as cancers.

BVs have already shown promising results in gene medicine based on the common cold virus  but now biotech companies are trying to push the technology further, in order to tackle other diseases.

The grant was awarded under the European Commission's Framework 6 Initiative, which approved Ark's scientific and technological capabilities in the field of genetics. The company scored 28 out of a maximum of 30, achieving one of the highest ever scores for applications in the field.

Ark has pioneered the use of BVs for mammalian gene transfer applications and news of the EU grant has delighted its chief executive, Dr Nigel Parker.

He said: "This is a real achievement for our scientists. They have put many years of dedicated effort into the technology of gene-based medicines.

"To have successfully driven the project, leading to the award of such a significant grant and to achieve such a high score in what is recognised as a rigorously peer-reviewed process, is a real credit to them."

The company currently has two marketed wound-care products, Kerraboot and Flaminal. In its pipeline are Vitor, for treating weight loss in cancer patients, along with Trinam for the treatment of kidney cancer. According to analysts, its best prospect is Cerepro, used in the treatment of late-stage brain cancer, which could extend life expectancy of patients by up to a year.

Experts believe that EU approval for Cerepro could come as quickly as spring 2007. They are predicting sales of around £180 million a year and say it could transform Ark's prospects and may even trigger a takeover bid.  

According to Ark, it is the only firm with a manufacturing capability licensed to produce gene medicines for commercial sale in Europe.

It has more than 100 employees at its main gene medicine research and manufacturing facility in Kuopio, Finland, and conducts further gene-related research in London.

Ark was set up in the mid-1990s by Prof John Martin and Stephen Barker of University College, London, along with Prof Seppo Yla-Herttuala of the A1 Virtanen Institute of Kuopio University, Finland, all of whom play leading roles in the company's current research and development programme.


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