Case study: modulating the effect of the TRPV1 pain receptor

University of Cambridge-based research has led to the development of a new approach to the treatment of neuropathic pain, caused by nerve damage. There is a substantial unmet need for neuropathic pain relief, and a breakthrough in this area could revolutionise its treatment. This type of pain is common in diabetics, but also occurs in many other situations, from shingles to cancer.

Led by Professor Peter McNaughton, formerly of the University of Cambridge and now at Kings College London, the project focuses on a novel way of indirectly modulating the effect of the TRPV1, or ‘hot chilli pepper’ receptor, an important initiator of the sensation of pain. The team demonstrated the effectiveness of using certain peptides to interfere with the function of TRPV1, to eliminate neuropathic pain without the critical side effects of other drugs that directly inhibit the receptor.

Support from Cambridge Enterprise

McNaughton first approached us in 2008. We helped him obtain follow-on funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), as well as Medical Research Council (MRC) Confidence in Concept funding, a fund awarded to projects undertaking preliminary translational work. These efforts culminated in January 2016, when MRC Technology (now LifeArc), an independent life science medical research charity that helps bridge the gap between basic research and commercial application, became a collaborator on the project, adding substantial resources and expertise in discovery translation.

The project has been run out of the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst (SBC), a world-class environment for engagement between academia, pharma and biotechnology companies with state-of-the-art facilities, and has been led from the commercial side by Dr David Cavalla, a Senior Consultant at Cambridge Enterprise. We helped Professor McNaughton create the project plan to develop a novel therapeutic, commissioning consultants such as pain clinicians and drug discovery advisors to support McNaughton’s key expertise. We also provided ongoing investment and support to help the project develop, including funding two dedicated postdocs, Dr Joan Btesh and Dr Christina Hanack. In the collaboration and licence with LifeArc, we provide resource and expertise in target binding assay development and animal models of pain and LifeArc provides resource and expertise in drug discovery.

Access to GlaxoSmithKline facilities

This project was the first Cambridge translational therapeutic project to be based at the SBC, which provides a number of benefits, including the use of its lab equipment and the animal facilities of the global healthcare company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Direct industry advice on specific aspects of the project is being provided through consultancy work from GSK staff (GSK has no commercial rights to the project). Although McNaughton now works at Kings College London, an arrangement is in place to ensure this project remains part of the University of Cambridge.

All animal studies were ethically reviewed and carried out in accordance with Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 and the GSK Policy on the Care, Welfare and Treatment of Animals.

Commercial licensing opportunity

This novel therapeutic is now licensed to Merck by Kings College London.