Perspectives – growing our knowledge

Researcher profile: Mats Larhed

Health, chemistry and early drug development

The unifying theme of Mats Larhed’s work is the improvement of human health. It is reflected in both his efforts in developing new drug candidates and in his coordination of the EU health project EIT Health in Uppsala.

Mats Larhed has just returned to work following a trip to Norway, where he spent time on one of his major hobbies: climbing mountains and then skiing down them. Now, the skis will rest for a while and give way to different forms of pharmaceutical drug development.

He is professor at the Department of Medicinal Chemistry at Uppsala University where he heads a research group that designs and synthesizes new molecules for the purpose of developing new drugs. The group is mainly working on molecules that can alleviate high blood pressure, neuropathic pain and impaired cognitive abilities associated with dementia.

Spurred by the closure of AstraZeneca in Södertälje, Mats Larhed and his colleagues wrote a proposal to build a national infrastructure for pharmaceutical drug development within academia. The report that he co-authored with Per Artursson (Professor of Drug Formulation) and Helena Danielson (Professor of Biochemistry) among others helped lay the foundation of today’s Drug Discovery and Development Platform at SciLifeLab.

‘It was rewarding to be part of this much-needed initiative. The Drug Discovery and Development Platform plays an important role in Swedish pharmaceutical drug development by making use of and elaborating on the research being conducted in academia’, Mats Larhed says.

Today, he is Director of the facility designated Medicinal Chemistry – Lead Identification, part of the Drug Discovery and Development Platform. The facility is contacted by researchers who have identified one or several biologically active molecules which they would like to develop further. The facility staff improves the molecule to the point where it is eligible to enter clinical trials.

‘The research groups that approach us have usually developed a small number of variants of the bioactive molecule that they believe would be worthwhile to refined into a drug candidate. We design and synthesize new analogue ones based on their best molecule in series of up to 100 new molecules, and examine their chemical and biological effects to identify the ones with the best properties’, Mats Larhed says.

There are many reasons for a molecule to be rejected. Some molecules affect our biology negatively, others fail to be absorbed by the body and still others cannot be protected by patenting.

‘In the end, the facility delivers a project where we have identified a number of molecules that are viable candidates for the next step. Other parties then continue the development process. One example is the company Glionova Therapeutics, founded in late 2014, which further refines and evaluates drug candidates that have been developed through the SciLifeLab Drug Discovery and Development Platform.'

Mats Larhed is also chair of the SciLifeLab Steering Committee at the Uppsala node. The Steering Committee oversees research funding allocation, nominates candidates for different positions and initiates new recruitments. Decisions are then made by the Disciplinary Domains of Medicine & Pharmacy and Science & Technology at Uppsala University.

At the moment, Mats Larhed spends much of his time as coordinator of EIT Health in Uppsala. EIT Health is a multi-billion-dollar project that aims to tackle the healthcare challenges of Europe. The project counts Uppsala University, KTH (Royal Institute of Technology) and Karolinska Institutet among its 52 core partners. SciLifeLab is also a partner of the initiative.

‘I see great potential for joint EIT Health – SciLifeLab projects and for innovative collaborations in new educational programmes’, Mats Larhed concludes.

Sara Engström

FACTS – MATS LARHED

Name: Mats Larhed
Profession: Professor at the Department of Medicinal Chemistry at Uppsala University.
Connection to SciLifeLab: Chair of the Steering Committee at SciLifeLab in Uppsala. Director of the facility Medicinal Chemistry – Lead Identification. SciLifeLab Faculty member.
Leisure activities/hobbies: Skiing, golf and kayaking.
What you didn’t know about Mats Larhed: He has a great interest in shoes, especially welted English leather shoes.