Research conducted at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) has contributed
significantly to a major licensing agreement signed between Australian
biotechnology company, Bionomics, (ASX:BNO) and Germany- based pharmaceutical
company, Merck Serono.
Under the Development and Licensing Agreement,
Merck Serono will seek to develop new treatments for multiple sclerosis (MS) and
other autoimmune conditions. These prospective treatments will be based upon
compounds from Bionomics' Kv1.3 program, which WEHI had a fundamental role in
The Kv1.3 program has its origins in the late 1990s, when
WEHI's Dr Jonathan Baell and collaborators discovered that certain derivatives
of a natural product called khellinone could block a potassium channel called
Kv1.3. This potassium channel selectively inhibits autoreactive T cells, such as
those that attack the myelin sheath in people with MS.
Dr Baell says,
"Our research in this area had a rocky start, but when our first patents were
published in 2003, Start-Up Australia approached us with an interest in
licensing the intellectual property. This came to fruition in late 2004 through
their investee company, Iliad, which was able to resource the medicinal
chemistry effort required."
In 2005, Iliad was acquired by Bionomics,
which further accelerated progress with the program.
Dr Baell continues,
"There was a great meeting of minds between chemists from WEHI and Bionomics,
leading to a significant expansion of the patent portfolio. Bionomics also
established an in-house biology platform that effectively serviced the whole
"During the whole process, every scientist at WEHI and
Bionomics maintained a focus upon what we were trying to achieve: a treatment
for MS, a debilitating disease that is tragically common among young adults. Our
progress and achievements to date demonstrate that with intense tenacity and a
collaborative approach, academic drug discovery programs can produce great
WEHI's research achievements were recognised on a national
basis by the Royal Australian Chemical Institute with the 2004 Biota Award to Dr
Baell for medicinal chemistry and the award of an NHMRC Industry Fellowship to
Dr Andrew Harvey, who became an important driver of the program, along with
Bionomics' medicinal chemistry colleagues, Drs Flynn, Chaplin, Paul and Mould.