Drug testing platform will benefit pharmaceutical sector

Scientists in England are developing a new drug testing platform that promises to bring long-term benefits to the pharmaceutical industry.

The team from Southampton University and Birkbeck College, University of London, is developing a platform consisting of an array of artificial cell membranes that will enable the more efficient testing of potential new drugs.

The Bilayer Platform project has been awarded £1.2m from the EPSRC to develop a technology that uses artificial bilayer lipid membranes to evaluate the effectiveness of drugs on ion channels.

Prof Hywel Morgan and Dr Maurits de Planque at Southampton University’s School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) will use the clean-room technology in the new Mountbatten Building at Southampton University to build this novel platform for parallel on-chip electrophysiology. Each membrane patch will contain different ion channels.

According to de Planque, ion channels play a pivotal role in a wide variety of physiological processes and diseases and are consequently of considerable interest to the pharmaceutical industry. It is for this reason that the Southampton group has teamed up with the Birkbeck group, led by Prof Bonnie Ann Wallace, who are experts in ion channel structure and function.

Currently, pharmaceutical companies use electrodes to test entire cells, which can be expensive and involves testing a number of ion channels within the cell.

About 60 per cent of drugs work on membrane proteins (of which ion channels are a subclass) and the effectiveness of the drug is gauged by measuring activity in the ion channel as a result of administering the drug.

‘By putting the ion channel into an artificial membrane, we only have one type of channel, no living cells and a relatively inexpensive method for testing for several of these types of channels at once,’ said de Planque.

The project, which will take just more than three years, is expected to benefit public and private sector industries, as well as driving new research for the treatment of diseases such as chronic pain, epilepsy and certain types of heart disease.