The company’s molecule is the active ingredient in a psoriasis cream soon ready for testing on patients.
“One to three per cent of the world’s population suffers from psoriasis,” says Berit Johansen, professor of biology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim. “But current medications for psoriasis have so many side effects that only around 20 per cent of patients actually choose to undergo treatment. So it is no surprise that the pharmaceutical industry is following our progress closely.” Professor Johansen is the founder of the company Avexxin.
The coming patient trials involve just one of the molecules under development at Avexxin. The other molecules, if as successful as this one, could provide relief to sufferers of other chronic inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and kidney inflammation.
Arresting a traitorous enzyme
For over 2o years, Berit Johansen has been researching a particular enzyme in the PLA2 family that is found in all the body’s cells. While this specific enzyme performs its duties well in a number of vital processes, it can sometimes go rogue, sending false alarms to the body’s immune system that an attack is underway. This in turn triggers a destructive counter-attack against healthy cells and tissue, which can develop into chronic conditions such as psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. No wonder this PLA2 has earned the nickname “the Judas enzyme”.
Professor Johansen, a molecular biologist, is one of the foremost experts on this enzyme. She was, in fact, the world’s first to clone one of the important PLA2 enzymes. In 2005 she started up Avexxin in order to dedicate more attention to this troublemaking enzyme.
“In collaboration with Professor Lars Skattebøl of the University of Oslo, we have succeeded in designing a molecule that prevents PLA2 from sending erroneous signals to the body’s immune system. This molecule is now the active ingredient in a psoriasis cream to be clinically tested on patients . The active ingredient has been tested on mice,” reports Professor Johansen, “and the trials showed no side effects.”
Avexxin is also targeting the chronic inflammatory diseases rheumatoid arthritis and kidney inflammation. The reason for testing the psoriasis treatment first is that it is easier to confirm the molecule’s characteristics in a cream applied to the patient’s skin rather than applying the molecule internally against rheumatoid arthritis and kidney inflammation.
“The PLA2 enzyme functions differently in different cells and tissue types, so in addition we are developing other types of molecules as well. If it turns out that our molecules can control PLA2,” she adds enthusiastically, “they could relieve the symptoms of a variety of chronic inflammatory diseases.”
In developing their new molecule, Professor Johansen and her colleagues have worked closely with several international science groups. For research tasks they have collaborated with research groups in Greece, Switzerland and the USA. For development matters, they have sought assistance from experts in Denmark, France, Sweden and the UK. A number of specialist companies in Norway have also been involved.
“Companies like Avexxin simply have to operate in an international market. We go out and find the expertise we need,” explains Professor Johansen, “whether it’s research competence or testing facilities that we lack here in Norway.”
Funding from Research Council
Avexxin’s activities have received funding under the National Programme for Research in Functional Genomics in Norway (FUGE) – one of the Research Council’s Large-scale Programmes – which provides funding for research on genomes and genetic products. The company has also received funding for bringing a product closer to market launch via the Programme for User-driven Research-based Innovation (BIA), an open competitive arena.
Avexxin’s funded projects have all included international partners. The Research Council views international cooperation as an important criterion when awarding grants under its industry-oriented programmes and initiatives.