The goal of the new agreement is to develop a small-molecule-based medicine to potentially reverse facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, or FSHD, by inhibiting the activity of a protein that is incorrectly expressed by the DUX4 gene in people with the disease. The protein activity is what damages muscle cells and leads to progressive muscle weakness and atrophy in FSHD patients.
The genetic and disease mechanisms of FSHD were discovered by an international team of scientists led by Stephen Tapscott, M.D., Ph.D., a member of the Fred Hutch human biology division, in a series of studies published between 2010 and early 2012. Tapscott will lead the Fred Hutch work in the GSK collaboration.
The team's discoveries also have implications for developing cancer immunotherapies because researchers also discovered that DUX4 regulates cancer/testis antigens. Cancer/testis antigens are encoded by genes that are normally expressed only in the human germ line but are also abnormally expressed in various tumor types, including melanoma and carcinomas of the bladder, lung and liver. This knowledge will give researchers a way to manipulate the expression of cancer/testis antigens, potentially opening the opportunity to use these antigens in a cancer vaccine.
The partnership with GSK is a first of its kind for Fred Hutch, which is also the first U.S.-based institution to sign on with GSK's “Discovery Partnership with Academia" (DPAc) program. GSK launched the program last year to combine the insight and creativity of the academic world with GSK's drug-discovery expertise to turn innovative research into medicines that benefit patients. GSK currently has DPAc collaborations in place with Cambridge University and the University of Dundee in the U.K.
Unlike traditional licensing agreements in which the licensee is given full control to develop a discovery, the collaboration will involve GSK and Fred Hutch scientists working together to develop, test and hopefully bring to market a clinical treatment.
"At GSK we believe that combining our drug-discovery expertise with the in-depth disease knowledge of specialist academic groups can seed innovation and help speed up the discovery and development of new medicines," said Pearl Huang, global head of DPAc. "We're excited to be expanding our academic program in North America and are looking forward to working closely with scientists like Dr. Tapscott, whose deep understanding of disease biology will complement our own work in this field."
Financial terms of the Fred Hutch-GSK partnership were not disclosed.