Plant drugs and snail venom: Revolutionary drug research wins GSK award

Plants with peptide-based drugs in their seeds and leaves, and pain relief from cone snail venom are two of the innovative applications from the research of Professor David Craik, winner of the 34th GSK Award for Research Excellence at last night’s Research Australia Awards dinner in Sydney.

Professor Craik, a biological chemist from The University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, discovered the largest known family of circular proteins, called cyclotides, which he is using to develop drug design approaches to treat pain and disease, and insecticides to protect Australian food and fibre crops. 

Professor Craik’s groundbreaking research was originally inspired by a Norwegian doctor’s discovery of an African tea for childbirth. “The tea shortened labour,” Professor Craik says, “but at the time they didn’t know why the plant-based medicine worked.” 

Twenty years later Professor Craik made his discovery. “It was the unusual circular structure of the molecules. We knew peptides had great potential, but were previously unable to be taken orally as the digestive system would break them down. Our circular peptides are joined from head to tail, which makes them much stronger,” he says. “I did extensive fieldwork in Africa and elsewhere searching for plants with similar circular peptides to understand their structure.” 

Professor Craik went on to develop the chemistry for making ‘designer’ cyclotides, which can be used to develop new drugs with improved oral availability with few side effects. “My team has been working on using cone snail venom as a pain relief drug 100 times more potent than morphine,” he says. “We are also producing peptide-based drug leads for chronic diseases in edible plant seeds, which we hope will give developing countries access to produce vital medicines at relatively low cost.” 

Research Australia’s CEO Elizabeth Foley says funding for such groundbreaking research is vital to the Australian science community. “It takes decades for medical research ideas to develop,” she says. “Funding like this is essential to assist research teams to continue their work.” 

Geoff McDonald, GSK’s Vice President and General Manager says presenting the award is an exciting annual event. “The award represents outstanding Australian research and we are proud to be able to support Professor Craik and his team to continue their pioneering research,” he says. “Professor Craik’s cyclotides could potentially underpin new treatments for cancer, chronic pain and multiple sclerosis in the future and revolutionise drug delivery methods.”

Professor Craik, an avid mountain trekker and marathon runner, flew from Brisbane to receive the award. “I am honoured and delighted to receive this award and particularly pleased that it recognises the efforts of an outstanding team of PhD students, postdocs and research assistants who have contributed to this work over many years,” he says. 

“Human trials are still a few years off, but winning a prestigious award such as this helps us raise awareness of the exciting developments happening in our lab and brings us closer to our goals.” 

This media release has been issued by Palin Communications on behalf of GSK.

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