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Antiviral compounds to be focus of new Centre at the Glycobiology Institute

The generous funding by US-based biotechnology company Romark of a substantial collaborative programme at the Oxford Glycobiology Institute has been marked by the opening of the Romark Centre for Virology and Cell Biology Research.

The Centre occupies a floor in the Institute, which is part of the Biochemistry department, and will be directed by Dr Terry Butters who has been at the Institute since 1989. It will focus on the cellular mechanisms responsible for the powerful anti-viral activity of a group of compounds known as thiazolides

Romark's Professor Jean-Franηois Rossignol and University Vice-Chancellor Professor Andrew Hamilton unveil a plaque marking the opening of the Romark Centre for Virology and Cell Biology Research

Romark's Professor Jean-François Rossignol and University Vice- Chancellor Professor Andrew Hamilton unveil a plaque marking the opening of the Romark Centre for Virology and Cell Biology Research (Click to enlarge)

Professor Andrew Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, together with Professor Jean-François Rossignol, Chairman and Chief Science Officer of Romark, carried out the official opening of the Centre on March 18. Also visiting for the event were Marc Ayers, President and Chief Executive Officer of Romark, and Celine Rossignol, its Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer.

Thiazolides were developed by Professor Rossignol as a new class of antimicrobial agents for the treatment of parasitic and viral infections. Professor Rossignol's interest in understanding their anti-viral effects at a cellular level led to a collaborative pilot project with the Glycobiology Institute in 2009.

The new tranch of funding from Romark, which represents a substantial commitment of resources at the Institute, will support around 8 posts and will boost existing funding in Dr Butters' laboratory.

Speaking at the opening, the Vice-Chancellor said: 'The opening of this lab is an opportunity to recognise not just that initial support but also the extension and the expansion of that support. Oxford University seeks to engage with many partners and we can see today the benefits of that.' Commenting on the science, he added: 'It is very much an opportunity to focus attention on what we can learn from basic cell biology about how viruses work and cause disease.'

'We have a fantastic opportunity to do some basic cell biology around a series of compounds where there is a lot of therapeutic potential'

Professor Rossignol, who is currently a Visiting Professor in Glycobiology, told the audience it was a great honour to be in Oxford. 'My involvement in this country has been long, but certainly coming here has been the high point of my scientific life and I'm looking forward to doing really great research in this place,' he said.

Dr Butters agreed that this has been a tremendous collaboration and called it 'a two-way street for both of us.' He added: 'We have a fantastic opportunity to do some basic cell biology around a series of compounds where there is a lot of therapeutic potential. A real attraction in this programme is that there is so much basic science that we need to do that it's going to drive us for a number of years - towards, perhaps, getting into a clinical situation with really novel compounds.'

Plaque at the entrance to the Romark Centre for Virology and Cell Biology Research

Plaque at the entrance to the Romark Centre for Virology and Cell Biology Research (Click to enlarge)

The Director of the Glycobiology Institute, Professor Raymond Dwek, is keen to encourage partnerships with biotechnology companies which allow for this type of flexible, blue-skies research. There are other examples of such collaborations at the Institute, the most recent being a new partnership with the Scripps-Korea Antibody Institute to develop therapeutic antibodies against cancer-associated cell surface carbohydrates.

The translational aspect of research is very important to Professor Dwek who comments: 'I'm interested in creating IP here, particularly in the virology field, which can then be applied quite quickly.' The Institute's success in this area has been demonstrated by the development of a drug for the lysosomal storage disorder Gaucher's Disease. The royalties from this drug are used by the University to support new D.Phil positions in the Institute.

Dr Butters is confident that the new Romark-funded programme will help move his lab towards new and promising discoveries. 'To understand something about the biology of these compounds is an important task for us,' he says, 'because it may reveal other mechanisms in cellular biology that we can exploit.'

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