Spin-out's sale could help transform diabetes treatment

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A person using a device to measure their blood sugar levels

The recent acquisition of Ziylo, a University of Bristol spin-out company rooted in leading-edge EPSRC-funded chemistry research, could mark a major turning-point in the drive to develop safer, more effective treatment of diabetes. In August 2018, Danish pharma giant Novo Nordisk bought the company in a deal potentially worth up to US$800 million and the company now aims to incorporate a ground-breaking glucose-binding molecule developed by Ziylo into a radical new type of insulin.

  • World’s first-ever glucose-responsive insulin now potentially within reach  
  • Could be available to the global healthcare sector within 10 years
  • Could benefit many millions of people living with diabetes around the world  

Novo Nordisk’s goal is to develop an innovative insulin that, by reacting and adapting to glucose levels in the blood (i.e. blood sugar levels), makes it easier for diabetics to manage their condition and minimises the risk of ‘hypos’ – episodes of hypoglycemia, when blood sugar levels fall dangerously low. Hypos are the most common side effect of taking insulin to manage diabetes; they can lead to seizures and, in some cases, can even prove fatal.

Ziylo’s molecule could be a key component in such an insulin thanks to its ability not only to ‘seek out’ glucose in the blood but also to bind to it with unprecedented strength and selectivity. Originally inspired by the carbohydrate-binding molecules found in nature, its discovery followed years of pioneering supramolecular chemistry research by Professor Tony Davis’s research group at the University of Bristol.    

“This extraordinary new molecule appears to be the perfect glucose sensor and could help change the lives of millions of people for the better,” says Professor Davis, who has been at the forefront of research into synthetic sugar receptors for 20 years; his work in this field has been supported by two EPSRC postdoctoral grants and two EPSRC Impact Acceleration Awards. To help translate their academic thinking application, the Ziylo team also received funding of £500,000 through ICURe, an Innovate UK programme which helps university researchers to explore the commercial potential of their work.

Professor Davis says: “Collectively, this funding added real momentum to the process of developing and commercialising our breakthrough. After I had produced initial designs of the new molecule on computer, there were still a lot of challenges that needed to be tackled in terms of actually making it and then securing a patent.” 

A crucial role was played by Robert Tromans, a PhD student at Bristol’s EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Chemical Synthesis where Professor Davis is a supervisor, who joined the Davis Research Group as a direct result of that link.

“My project focused on the synthesis of new types of receptors for carbohydrates,” says Dr Tromans, who finished his PhD and joined Ziylo earlier this year. “One of these receptors formed the basis for the new glucose-binding molecule and I discovered its remarkable binding selectivity for glucose before going on to realise its full potential throughout the rest of my PhD. I worked closely with Ziylo, which enabled the company to further develop the molecule.”

Alongside PhD student Harry Destecroix and Tom Smart, Tony Davis founded Ziylo in 2014. With Ziylo now absorbed into Novo Nordisk following the acquisition deal, vital work to optimise the molecule for use in the new insulin will be undertaken by Carbometrics, a brand new spin-out company co-founded by Professor Davis, Tom Smart, Keith MacDonald and Dr Andy Chapman.

Led by co-founder and CEO, Dr Harry Destecroix, who was also Ziylo’s CEO, Carbometrics is also targeting a highly robust and accurate glucose sensing platform that can be used to create a market-leading Continuous Glucose Monitoring (CGM) solution. The company’s 11-strong team includes former PhD students and post-docs from the Davis Group.

The Ziylo deal could be worth US$800 million depending on the achievement of development, regulatory and sales milestones. The next phase of research will be followed by clinical trials which, it is hoped, will pave the way for the new insulin to become available within around a decade. Novo Nordisk’s investment in UK expertise provides clear evidence of the UK’s international standing in cutting-edge chemistry research and its ability to generate discoveries with huge commercial potential.      

Professor Davis concludes: “The key to the breakthrough was perseverance and determination to produce the perfect molecule for this specific application. Our focus was never simply on making an advance that was interesting purely in academic terms – we were intent on reaching an outcome with genuine potential to deliver major real-world benefits and we’ve succeeded in achieving that.”

Find out more

Diabetes is a metabolic disorder that affects glucose levels in the blood. It occurs when the body doesn’t make any, or enough, or good enough, insulin – a hormone produced in the pancreas that helps the body to harness glucose to produce energy. Diabetes can increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, blindness, kidney failure and other serious health problems. 

The World Health Organisation estimates that there are currently nearly 400 million people worldwide living with diabetes. There are currently around four million people in the UK with the disease. Overall, around one in 11 adults live with diabetes.

People with Type 1 diabetes (and some with Type 2 diabetes) are often prescribed insulin, to be taken via injection or by pump, to control their blood-sugar levels.  

Hypoglycemia, colloquially known as a ‘hypo’, can be caused by taking too much insulin and can occur when the balance of medication, food and insulin is not right. In these instances, blood-sugar levels usually fall below 4 mmol/l (millimoles per litre) of blood.

Novo Nordisk is a global healthcare company with more than 90 years of innovation and leadership in diabetes care. The development of glucose-responsive insulins is a key strategic area for the company.  

The Davis Research Group is based in the Organic and Biological Section of the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol and is focused on supramolecular chemistry – the study of chemical systems with greater complexity than individual molecules.

In 2015 Professor Tony Davis received the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Award for Physical Organic Chemistry.   

Based at the University of Bristol, the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Chemical Synthesis opened its doors in 2014 and currently has funding secured until 2022. Its aim is to provide a much-enhanced PhD training experience for its students, who choose their PhD research project after undergoing a unique seven-month multi-faceted training period in PACT (Postgraduate Advanced Chemical Techniques). This enables them to make the best-informed project choice and to develop a creative approach to problem-solving.

Contact Details

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Professor Tony Davis
Organisation: University of Bristol