Pharmaceutical company MSD has signed an agreement with King’s College London (KCL) and the non-profit Wellcome Trust in the UK for the development of a new generation of pain medications.
Existing painkillers are designed to relieve short-term pain. However, these pills are much less effective for chronic pain and associated with a risk of averse side-effects when high doses are taken over time.
Under the collaboration and licence deal, MSD will pay up to $340m in development and sales milestones, and royalties to King’s and Wellcome, if a drug comes to market.
The latest alliance is based on research by professor Peter McNaughton at King’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), who in 2011 discovered a biological mechanism responsible for chronic neuropathic pain.
While working at the University of Cambridge, McNaughton found that a protein called HCN2 plays a key role in chronic pain and can cause a continuous pain sensation by triggering electrical signals in nerve fibres.
After moving to KCL’d Wolfson Centre for Age-Related Diseases, the professor and his team identified that blocking HCN2 activity in animal models can provide effective pain relief without side effects which patients find unpleasant.
Since 2012, Wellcome granted £4.5m to support McNaughton’s work on developing drug candidates to block the HCN2 protein.
As part of the collaboration, MSD will carry out lead optimisation, preclinical development and clinical trials. The company will also fund further research on biological mechanisms of pain at the McNaughton lab.
McNaughton said: “Chronic pain has a devastating effect on people’s lives. Most pain drugs have been developed from traditional remedies or by repurposing existing medications and in general are not very effective at controlling chronic pain.
“By targeting the molecular causes of pain we have developed new molecules that we believe can avoid the major side-effects that come with current painkillers.”