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A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go to work


22 January 2007

There will soon be no more bitter pills to swallow, thanks to new research by Leeds scientists: a spoonful of sugar will be all we need for our bodies to make their own medicine.

Professor Simon Carding of Leeds’ Faculty of Biological Sciences has adapted a bacteria in our own bodies to make it produce a treatment for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Bacteria and viruses have been used before to deliver drugs in this way, but Professor Carding has solved the major problem with this kind of treatment: he uses a sugar to ‘switch’ the bacteria on and off. By eating the sugar, a patient will set the medicine to work and then can end the treatment simply by stopping consumption of the sugar.

“Current bacteria and virus delivery systems produce their drugs non-stop, but for many treatments there is a narrow concentration range at which drugs are beneficial,” said Professor Carding. “Outside of this, the treatment can be counterproductive and make the condition worse. It’s vitally important to be able to control when and how much of the drug is administered and we believe our discovery will provide that control.”

Professor Carding has modified one of the trillions of bacteria in the human gut so that it will produce human growth factors which help repair the layer of cells lining the colon, so reducing inflammation caused by IBD. But he’s also adapted the bacteria so it only activates in the presence of a plant sugar called xylan that is found in tree bark. Xylan is naturally present in food in low concentrations, so by taking it in higher quantities, a patient will be able to produce their own medicine as and when they need it.

“The human gut has a huge number of bacteria, and this treatment simply adapts what’s there naturally to treat the disease,” said Professor Carding. “We’re already looking at using the same technique for colorectal cancer, as we believe we could modify the bacteria to produce factors that will reduce tumour growth. Treatment of diseases elsewhere in the body might also be possible as most things present in the gut can get taken into the blood stream.”

The discovery has been patented – and is being developed further with support from the University’s technology transfer partner, Techtran – part of the IP Group – and the Medical Research Council. The technique has been shown to work in vitro, but the researchers will be testing the treatment over the next twelve months in preparation for clinical trials.

For more information, contact Abigail Chard on 0113 258 9880

Notes to editors:
The technique patented by Professor Carding modifies a human gut bacteria which naturally breaks down the plant wall sugar called xylan. Professor Carding has identified the gene in this bacteria which controls expression of the enzyme that breaks down xylan and linked it to another human gene which produces cytokines – growth factors which help prevent or reduce inflammation and repair the epithelial cells that line the the colon. This means that, when xylan is present, the modified bacteria produces cytokines, and when xylan is no longer present, production stops – enabling complete control over how much and when the treatment is administered.

Simon Carding is Professor of Molecular Immunology in the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. The Faculty is one of the largest in the UK, with nearly 150 academic staff and over 400 postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate students. The Faculty’s current active research grant portfolio is around £77M and funders include charities, Research Councils, the European Union and industry. The Faculty has an outstanding research record and all major units of assessment were awarded Grade 5 in the last government (HEFCE) Research Assessment Exercise.

Techtran Group Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of IP Group plc, is a technology transfer company that provides commercialisation services to the University of Leeds. IP Group Plc is an intellectual property (IP) commercialisation company that specialises in commercialising university technology. Founded in 2001, IP Group listed on AiM in October 2003 and moved to the Official List in June 2006. It has made two acquisitions to date – Techtran, a company set up to commercialise university intellectual property under a long term contract with the University of Leeds, in 2005 and Top Technology Ventures, an investment adviser to early stage technology venture capital funds, in 2004. The group has formed long-term partnerships with ten universities – the University of Oxford, King’s College London, CNAP/University of York, the University of Leeds, the University of Bristol, the University of Surrey, the University of Southampton, Queen Mary (University of London), the University of Bath and the University of Glasgow. For more information visit


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