Victoria University of Wellington-led research received three of the Explorer Grants for 2019, which were announced this morning.
Addiction to drugs of abuse such as nicotine, methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin could all be treated more efficiently and successfully as a result of the project led by Dr Benjamin Compton from the University’s Ferrier Research Institute and including Dr Lisa Connor from the School of Biological Sciences.
The treatment they are developing incorporates an approach known as immunopharmacotherapy.
Addictive drugs are small molecules that easily cross people’s blood brain barrier and bind themselves to receptors, triggering reward signals. Using immunopharmacotherapy, a vaccine induces drug-specific antibodies that bind themselves to the drug, preventing it from crossing the blood brain barrier and acting on the central nervous system, thereby reducing its addictive effects.
“Despite advancements and many promising pre-clinical findings, decades of research investigating immunopharmacotherapy as a treatment option for drug addiction has not yet resulted in a vaccine candidate demonstrating efficacy in final clinical trials,” says Dr Compton.
“This funding from the Health Research Council will enable us to develop and assess an exciting new synthetic vaccine platform that could pave the way for the first efficacious immunopharmacotherapy for humans, profoundly changing the way physicians can medicate for drug addiction.”
It is envisaged the vaccine platform could be easily adapted to help treat multiple drug addiction disorders.
“Our research has the capacity to provide better outcomes for patients—including avoiding the side-effects associated with current anti-addiction medications—as well as reducing the burden harmful drugs have on society, which is estimated to cost the New Zealand economy $1.8 billion a year,” says Dr Compton.
In a second Health Research Council-funded project, Dr Wanting Jiao, also from the Ferrier Research Institute, is using the computational power of quantum and molecular mechanics to investigate a previously hard-to-access tuberculosis (TB) enzyme and design an antibiotic to fight it.
“We will make possible the development of a new generation of anti-TB drugs in a considerably shorter period of time and at greatly reduced cost than current methods allow,” says Dr Jiao, who is collaborating with scientists from the University of Otago.
The technique could also be used in the battle against other pathogenic bacteria, an international health priority due to the global rise of multidrug-resistant bacteria.
“Our novel computational methods will vastly improve the ability to design new classes of highly potent and selective enzyme-inhibiting antibiotics,” says Dr Jiao. “They will overcome the problems that plague existing techniques and promise to revolutionise drug design.”
The third Victoria University of Wellington project is led by Professor David Ackerley from the School of Biological Sciences and includes collaborators from the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, based at the University, Johns Hopkins University in the United States, and the University of Auckland. The team aims to advance cellular regeneration research and degenerative disease modelling.
Dr Compton, Dr Jiao and Professor Ackerley are all active members of Victoria University of Wellington’s Centre for Biodiscovery.
The University’s Vice-Provost (Research), Professor Margaret Hyland, says they highlight the University’s commitment to improving health and wellbeing.
“The Ferrier Research Institute has a long and proud history of drug discovery and that continues with the two projects funded today. Other important health research is being conducted elsewhere in the University too, not least in other parts of the Faculty of Science, home to another of today’s supported projects, and in the Faculty of Health we established in 2017,” says Professor Hyland.
She adds that the three projects illustrate how Victoria University of Wellington researchers “collaborate across disciplines, institutions and indeed countries to incorporate wide perspectives in their endeavours and ensure the highest-quality results”.
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