One of Nottingham’s most successful bioscience companies is working towards developing a drug to help treat the deadly coronavirus.

Sygnature Discovery, which moved into BioCity in Nottingham city centre in 2004, provides drug discovery and pre-clinical services and expertise to clients across the world.

The company has more than 300 scientists on site at BioCity, which is still operational during the COVID-19 crisis, and is working with all of its pharmaceutical clients on research projects for some of the worst illnesses, such as different cancers, lung diseases, brain disease and infections.

All of this is before clinical trials. Currently 15 compounds developed at Sygnature are undergoing clinical trials in healthy volunteers and patients.

In normal times, to get to the approval stage on a drug for use in the public could take 10 years, according to bosses at Sygnature.

But the firm is looking at “seriously accelerated timelines” against coronavirus and say using the power of artificial intelligence in drug discovery can help speed up the process.

Dr Stuart Onions, director of research management, told Nottinghamshire Live: “A line would be to develop a new medicine and that’s what we’re working towards, a new medicine

“In normal times to get to approval could take 10 years. In these instances we’re going to be looking at seriously accelerated timelines and the power of artificial intelligence in drug discovery can accelerate these things.

“We could be in a position where we have drugs available within two to three years to be tested on human beings if the discovery process goes very efficiently. It traditionally takes five years to get a drug ready to go to human trials.”

Dr Onions added that coronavirus could be similar to flu in being ever present in the population. “We work on medicines that usually are going to take three to five years to develop, you would think this is going to pass in six months.

“The expectation is this will be treated by a vaccine which can be quicker and create bulk (herd) immunity for society. However, this might not be the case, and maybe similar to flu being ever present in the population

“We are showing an active interest in the area. To that end whilst it’s early days we have some ongoing work in collaboration with UK-based universities. “The bigger picture is about coordinating to really come up with a concerted effort and a controlled effort to target the virus directly to come up with new therapeutics.”

While still early days in the case of coronavirus, Dr Paul Clewlow, Board Director, added that “it’s very much business as usual at Sygnature” as the company works to develop drugs not only for coronavirus but for other diseases.

He said: “A vaccine for COVID-19 is the ultimate aim, but that might be 12 months away. Although it could be sooner as there are currently about 35 companies and academic institutions racing to create such a vaccine.

“Other treatments for helping people with the coronavirus might be available in the short term as some marketed antiviral drugs could become COVID-19 treatments.

“Clinical trials need to demonstrate there is actual therapeutic benefit in giving them to people until a vaccine comes through.

“If some of these anti-viral drugs are found to work in COVID-19 patients that would be great as they are marketed medicines and could become new approved treatments more quickly.”

Dr Clewlow added that, globally, this is probably the biggest pandemic we have faced since the Spanish flu pandemic of the early 20th century.

“The word unprecedented is being used a lot at the moment, but it really is. We are all in uncharted waters with COVID-19 treatments,” he said.

“Sygnature’s involvement is currently at a very early stage of laboratory-based research working with a couple of academics in the UK.

“In the meantime our normal drug discovery activities go on for clients. Whilst COVID-19 is huge and terribly scary in lots of ways, people are still need new medicines for lots of other debilitating diseases all those things haven’t gone away.”

To enable research to continue Sygnature is protecting the health and well-being of staff by closely following government guidelines on social distancing and facilitating working from home where possible.

It has introduced a shift system for lab-based scientists and is looking at weekend working as well.

“Our scientists are highly motivated,” Dr Clewlow said. If Sygnature can help to identify a treatment for COVID-19 in any way, we would be pleased to help to eradicate this disease.”