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Almost ISK 900 million awarded for development of drugs to tackle antibiotic-resistant bacteria

Egill Másson, CEO of Akthelia and Professor Guðmundur Hrafn Guðmundsson of the University of Iceland's Faculty of Life and Environmental Sciences

The start-up company Akthelia Pharmaceuticals and the University of Iceland are leading a project that has been awarded a grant of EUR 6 million, the equivalent of almost ISK 900 million, from the European Union. The project aims to develop new drugs that will boost the body's natural immune response or innate immunity in order to combat the growing threat from antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 

The project, which is called IN-ARMOR, is a collaboration between nine universities and research institutes and seven companies in nine different European countries. IN-ARMOR is an attempt to tackle the global issue of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a problem that the World Health Organization has defined as one of the ten biggest threats to public health in the world.

An estimated five million deaths can be attributed to increased antibiotic resistance and there are fears that multiresistant strains of bacteria could cause a pandemic. We need new ways to deal with infections and Akthelia is striving to find solutions. 

Boosting the body's natural immune response

Akthelia was founded around 20 years ago. The company's research and development work is focused on regulation of innate immunity with emphasis on antimicrobial peptides – short protein chains that play a key role in mammalian, including human, immune systems. Peptides could be considered a kind of in-built antibiotic and the body's first line of defence against bacterial infections. The company is developing a drug that boosts the body's innate immune defences in order to defeat infections.

Akthelia's work builds on basic research at the University of Iceland. The company was founded by Professor Guðmundur Hrafn Guðmundsson of the Faculty of Life and Environmental Sciences, Professor Eiríkur Steimgrímsson of the Faculty of Medicine and their colleagues, Professor Roger Strömberg and Professor Birgitta Agerberth of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. The University of Iceland is among the owners of the start-up company, which has won a significant amount of funding from research and innovation funds.

Computer and nanotechnology used in drug development

The IN-ARMOR project aims to develop a new drug using computer technology, as well as harnessing nanotechnology to target drugs to specific sites within the body, which will extend their effectiveness and reduce side effects. The effectiveness and safety of the treatment will also be trialled in accordance with professional standards. The team hope it will be possible to use the drug either by itself or in combination with traditional antibiotics to fight infections, including those caused by multidrug-resistant bacteria, which are a growing global problem.
"We are delighted that our new technology, developed in collaboration with the University of Iceland, has been awarded this significant grant," says Egill Másson, CEO of Akthelia. "The IN-ARMOR project's focus on novel immune system inducers is a testament to the potential of our approach in addressing the global challenge of antimicrobial resistance, and we are eager to advance this ground-breaking research."

"I am very happy to be working with Akthelia Pharmaceuticals on this vital project," says Guðmundur Hrafn Guðmundsson, professor at the University of Iceland and chief scientific officer at Akthelia. "By concentrating on stimulating the body's innate defences against infection, we can avoid the use of traditional antibiotics and develop revolutionary new treatments to tackle multiresistant bacteria. This could save countless lives across the world," explains Guðmundur.  

The IN-ARMOR team points out that not only could the novel drugs save many lives each year, they will also reduce the global morbidity of infections and save money on the development of new antibiotics. 

Egill Másson, CEO of Akthelia and Professor Guðmundur Hrafn Guðmundsson of the University of Iceland's Faculty of Life and Environmental Sciences

Egill Másson, CEO of Akthelia and Professor Guðmundur Hrafn Guðmundsson of the University of Iceland's Faculty of Life and Environmental Sciences. image/Kristinn Ingvarsson