Read how we got to where are today.


Dr Erika Mancini, a structural biochemist with a long-standing interest in transcription regulation and its misregulation in cancer, was appointed as Director in August 2023

Professor John Spencer (Xenova/Trigen, Cerebrus, James Black Foundation) was Director from 2021 until 2023 and has now taken on the role of Head of Medicinal Chemistry at the Centre. A Sussex graduate and medicinal chemist, he strengthened SDDC by integrating his established research portfolio and resources with our existing drug discovery expertise, expanding our capabilities in fragment-based drug discovery (bromodomains, kinases), p53 stabilisation and hybrid agents including PROTACs. On the biology side we have also been proud to welcome Professor Roger Corder (QMW, William Harvey Institute) whose research is focused on defining new therapeutic agents for endothelial dysfunction.

2022 saw the establishment of a unique strategic partnership between SDDC and Sophion Bioscience – the first of its kind in the UK - to provide an academic planar patch-clamp facility to build on our success in ion channel drug discovery.

SDDC history

The group, originally named the Translational Drug Discovery Group, was established in 2011 as part of a strategic initiative by the School of Life Sciences. Its establishment was precipitated by:

  • the UK’s pharmaceutical industry experiencing a dramatic and significant decline in the first decade of the millennium, changing the landscape for UK drug discovery
  • the strategic withdrawal of many large pharma organisations from selected therapeutic areas with high unmet medical need, e.g. neuroscience and respiratory research
  • a slowly increasing availability of funds targeted to academic translational drug discovery from sources such as the Wellcome Trust’s ‘Seeding Drug Discovery Awards’ or the Medical Research Council’s ‘Developmental Pathway Funding Scheme’.

The group was founded by Professor Simon Ward (GSK) and Professor John Atack (Merck, Janssen) to create a small, nimble organisation to translate the understanding of fundamental disease biology and validated molecular targets, delineated by Sussex and other academic scientists, into novel drugs. With a £2.5M investment from the University, the group established parallel integrated laboratories focused on medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology, strengthening this foundation by recruiting staff with strong industrial drug discovery backgrounds.

In 2014, Professor Martin Gosling (Novartis) joined as co-director, and the group expanded its therapeutic focus to include respiratory disease. Its industry/biotech collaborations now included:

  • ReVIRAL: a Wellcome Trust-funded collaboration for RSV inhibitors
  • GlaxoSmithKline: a legacy AMPA project now funded by WT SDDA
  • Enterprise Therapeutics: a Sussex spin-out respiratory biotech (VC funding)
  • AstraZeneca: screening partnerships to prosecute novel targets

By 2015 the group had secured more than £10 million in funding from diverse sources including the Wellcome Trust, MRC and the EU, as well as disease-focused charities (Cancer Research UK, Migraine Research Foundation, Alzheimer’s Trust) and industrial partners via CASE studentships (Janssen, Evotec, Novartis, Essen). This funding was centred on programs in neuroscience (schizophrenia, cognition, neurodegeneration) and the translation of basic science discoveries from the University’s Genome Damage and Stability Centre (oncology).

As part of the University’s continued development of its drug discovery activities the success and future potential of the group was recognised with the award of Centre status and the group renamed the Sussex Drug Discovery Centre (SDDC) in 2015. In 2017, both Profs Simon Ward and John Atack moved on to Cardiff where they pursued a clinical focus for their research output, from ‘bench-to-bedside’. Meanwhile at Sussex, the ReVIRAL project became the first from SDDC to reach the clinical trial phase and the extraordinarily successful pre-clinical partnership with Enterprise Therapeutics, lead by Prof Martin Gosling, culminated in the sale of a novel first-in-class therapy for cystic fibrosis to Roche in 2020.

Professor Jeffrey Hill (GlaxoSmithKline) was the director of SDDC from 2019 until 2021.