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Working with big pharma to find new liver treatments

Project contact
Dr Susan Bodie
Head of Business Development, College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine

Professor Neil Henderson is leading collaborative research with two major pharmaceutical companies to develop therapies that improve the prognosis for people living with liver disease.

Drawn by his reputation, publication record and specialised areas of research, the two companies approached Professor Henderson, Chair of Tissue Repair and Regeneration, to lead several research projects. These projects would identify better targets for liver disease therapies, and positively impact the health and livelihoods of people diagnosed with liver disease.

Developing therapies for liver disease

Both pharmaceutical companies are looking to find therapeutic, rather than surgical, treatments for liver diseases. Each beginning in early 2020, the first collaboration looks at using single-cell approaches to examine the prevalent liver diseases, Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), and Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC), and the second project focuses solely on NASH, for which there are no effective treatments.

The projects intend to identify relevant and novel anti-fibrotic targets and develop medications to stop, or even reverse liver scarring. Achieving this would mean that clinicians could arrest, and potentially even reverse, liver disease before it becomes end-stage – greatly increasing the quality of life and lifespan of patients living with liver disease.

True research-and-industry collaborations

These industry collaborations are a natural fit for Professor Henderson. They resonate with his own academic expertise and research ambitions. Both pharmaceutical companies are very pleased with progress: Professor Henderson’s team has maintained momentum and continued to meet milestones despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

The support from both companies is invaluable to the research, progress and development – enabling Professor Henderson’s team to double in size to 20 and establishing him as a leading expert in this area. These companies are also very keen to embrace technology, which, in such a fast-moving industry and field, means Professor Henderson and his team are able to quickly integrate new technologies and optimise the outcomes of their research.

Pushing science forward from all sides

The research team, industry partners and Edinburgh Innovations (EI) are working hand in hand to push the science forward from all sides. EI has supported these projects from their inception – from negotiating and securing the agreements worth over $2 million each, liaising with the industry partners and legal teams, and ensuring the research team has what they need to deliver the project.

Promising discoveries

So far, the research teams have seen several successes. Not only have they identified new subtypes of scar-forming cells in human liver disease, but they have also built up rich datasets to underpin these findings.

There will be joint publications arising from each collaboration, further helping to raise the profile of this impactful and cutting-edge work within the liver community, and crucially, the papers will form the foundation for future research projects that will benefit people living with liver disease across the world.

Edinburgh Innovations’ support has been fundamental to the success of these collaborative projects with major pharmaceutical companies. They have been an excellent source of advice and support throughout this process, and have played a major part in helping set up these large scale collaborations with industrial partners.

Professor Neil Henderson, University of Edinburgh
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