Cancer Research UK, the world's largest independent cancer research organisation, is tackling a medicinal chemistry crisis with a £10 million grant.

Cancer Research UK, the world’s largest independent cancer research organisation, is tackling a medicinal chemistry crisis with a ?10 million grant.

CRUK will fund 60 medicinal chemistry PhD students over five years at five institutions across the country.

’We’re trying to site these students in fantastic chemistry departments where they’ve got routine exposure to the delights of classical pharmacology, to top quality cell and molecular biology, which is defining targets for cancer drug hunting, and to all the spectrum of technology they need for pre-clinical assessment and refinement for potential new drugs,’ said CRUK chief executive, Alex Markham.

CRUK spotted a bottleneck in the drug development process, where advances in high throughput screening, molecular modelling and structural biology produce lead compounds for drug targets faster than before. Medicinal chemists are needed to turn lead compounds into drugs, Markham told Chemistry World. ’Without a new generation of top class medicinal chemists, the world is not going to win the battle against cancer in the next 20 years,’ he said.

Anthony Barrett, who led Imperial College’s bid that put it among the five successful institutes, said the interface between medicine and chemistry in the UK had so far been ’woefully inadequately addressed’. Barrett’s students will collaborate with pharmaceuticals giant AstraZeneca to get drugs on to the market. ’Universities are not marketing organisations,’ said Barrett.

RSC president Simon Campbell agrees that successful drug development will require industry involvement. ’We welcome this initiative from CRUK, we also welcome the emphasis on mentoring by experienced chemists who are active in drug discovery and hope this will involve active participation from RSC members in industry,’ he said.

Cambridge University received money for twice as many students as the other four institutions. This could be in part due to existing efforts to collaborate in oncology, chemistry, biochemistry and pharmacology, highlighted by Cambridge’s chemical oncology forum, said Shankar Balasubramanian, who led the bid. ’This was going on before the CRUK programme, so when that launched, it fitted very well into our vision,’ he said.

CRUK hopes to extend the funding beyond five years. ’If the people who were successful in the first round deliver against what they promise there’s going to be an opportunity to renew that funding,’ said Simon Vincent, who developed the CRUK scheme. 

Other funding bodies, such as the research councils, might be prompted to fund medicinal chemistry if the scheme is a success, Vincent added. ’Hopefully as we see an area and perhaps make a small investment it will trigger others to come on board as well.’

Barrett said the scheme is a large experiment for CRUK. ’They want to see that we perform,’ he said. ’If we maintain and fulfil the goals we set ourselves I very much hope that they will make the funding evergreen.’ Katharine Sanderson