Sussex scientists awarded £4m to develop drug for schizophrenia

Professor Simon Ward leads the £4m project to develop a new drug to treat schizophrenia

A team of scientists at the University of Sussex are to begin a £4 million project to develop an innovative new drug for treating the devastating psychiatric condition, schizophrenia.

Building on earlier research, the Sussex Translational Drug Discovery Group  are being funded by the Wellcome Trust and expect to have a compound ready for clinical evaluation in just over three years.The project officially starts on 1 August 2014.

Around 1% of the population will suffer from schizophrenia at some point in their life. The condition, which more commonly affects those in their late teens and early twenties, is diagnosed through symptoms such as paranoia and/or hearing voices, along with impairments to thought processes and motivation and an inability to function socially.

Current treatments – first developed 60 years ago – are effective at supressing the delusional episodes by blocking the brain’s dopamine receptors (dopamine is a chemical in the brain associated with reward and pleasure), but they have little effect on the other symptoms.

These largely untreated symptoms remain a huge barrier to the resumption of a fully functional “normal” life for these individuals and are associated with an annual estimated cost in the UK alone of around £12 billion.

The Sussex team are taking a new approach by looking at another of the brain’s key chemicals, glutamate, levels of which are altered in schizophrenia. Glutamate is associated with attention, memory and problem solving.

Brain cells (neurons) communicate with each other by releasing chemicals, such as glutamate, that react with proteins, called receptors, on adjacent neurons. The actions of glutamate are mediated by several types of neuron receptors of which one, the AMPA receptor, is particularly important. Increasing AMPA receptor function should compensate for the dysfunction in glutamate neurotransmission and should improve cognitive performance in, and thereby revolutionise the treatment of, schizophrenia.

Lead scientist for the project Professor Simon Ward says: “Schizophrenia is often a devastating condition, not just for the sufferers but also for their families and communities. And there is currently no treatment that can give them a ‘normal’ life.

“We have known about the role glutamate plays for some  years. An illustration of its role in cognitive function came through observing what happens when people take drugs such as ketamine. People who use too much ketamine have altered levels of glutamate and go on to develop symptoms similar to schizophrenia.

“The challenge is in designing a compound that will have just the right effect as a drug therapy. Too much glutamate can excite the brain too much and cause convulsions or even death. The process is all about exquisite fine-tuning.”

 Evidence suggests that this approach may also prove effective for treating other conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The research, which will largely be carried out at the University of Sussex laboratories, will involve the latest technologies to identify the very subtle effects required for a molecule to improve brain function without causing serious side effects.

Professor Ward, who led drug discovery projects in the pharmaceutical industry before coming to Sussex, adds: “This award from the Wellcome Trust’s Seeding Drug Discovery fund shows that Sussex is now being recognised as a major centre for pharmaceutical research and drug discovery.”

Notes for editors

  • University of Sussex Press Office: Tel: 02173 678888 Mob 07540 673625  Email:
  • The Translational Drug Discovery Group was established as part of a major new strategic investment within the school of Life Sciences at the University of Sussex. The group comprises medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology laboratories and aims to translate a fundamental understanding of disease processes and molecular targets, whether that knowledge resides within the University of Sussex or in UK-based and international academic and industrial institutions, into novel medicines.
  • The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health, spending over£700 million each year on realising this ambition. It supports bright minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities, including public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.

By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Friday, 1 August 2014