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Controlling the ‘social life’ of proteins aims to transform drug discovery

18 December 2015

A new £3.4 million programme will develop new tools to understand which interactions between proteins in the human body are relevant to disease.


Currently, only a handful of drugs in clinical use work by targeting protein-protein interactions.

The new project, which will launch on 1 February, 2016, will involve researchers from the University of Leeds, the University of Bristol and three drug discovery organisations: the Northern Institute for Cancer Research, Newcastle University; AstraZeneca; and Domainex.

The project will be led by Professor Andrew Wilson, Deputy Director of The Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology at the University of Leeds.

To develop new drugs, scientists have become adept at blocking well-defined binding sites on proteins where small molecules can bind. This allows, for instance, many enzymes – a type of protein that accelerates a chemical reaction – involved in disease processes to be disabled. 

Dr Gail Bartlett, who will lead the computational biochemistry research at Bristol, explained the greater challenge of disrupting protein-protein interactions.

“A protein-protein interaction is more like a handshake or an embrace. We don't know which chemical and structural features of the interface are most important, and additionally, the characteristics of small molecules that could block them are largely unknown. This project will elucidate rules for designing small molecules to target these interfaces,” Dr Bartlett said.

Professor Adam Nelson, also from the University of Leeds, concluded: “Increasing innovation in drug discovery is a major challenge, in part because the easier, ‘low-hanging’ drug targets have already been largely tapped. Our research will pave the way for a wide range of protein-protein interactions to be targeted by drugs in future.”

Further information

The five-year project is being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and will be led by the University of Leeds in collaboration with the University of Bristol.