Finding a potential new treatment for Alzheimer's disease will be the aim of a new $850,000 collaboration between Kiwi and UK scientists.
Every 60 seconds, someone in the world develops the disease, which causes an inability to retain new information and difficulty in recognising people and places.
In developed countries alone, the disease affects more than 10 million people and is increasing in prevalence due to ageing populations.
With $392,000 from research consortium KiwiNet's PreSeed Accelerator Fund, more than $450,000 from the UK's Alzheimer's Society, and a further $15,000 grant from the New Zealand Federation of Women's Institutes, the team will develop drug candidates discovered from research they've been working on since 2008.
"New drugs that can effectively halt or delay the progression of the disease are urgently needed and this funding is invaluable to progressing our work," said Professor Peter Tyler, who will work alongside colleagues at Victoria University's Ferrier Research Institute, Dr Olga Zubkova and Dr Ralf Schworer, and long-time collaborator, Professor Jerry Turnbull, of the University of Liverpool.
Their approach harnesses the natural ability of complex sugars, called heparan sulfates, to control the degradation of proteins in the brain that cause memory loss.
The scientists have discovered how to make small heparan sulfates chemically in the lab, and found some of them have the ability to target an enzyme that creates small toxic compounds in the brain believed to be responsible for Alzheimer's disease.
"Our molecules are targeted against the formation of these compounds called amyloids," Tyler said.
"Amyloids disrupt the normal function of cells, leading to the progressive memory loss that is characteristic of Alzheimer's disease."
The molecules involved sophisticated chemistry processes and had the potential to slow or stop progression of the disease.
No one else in the world was using the heparan sulfate approach, Tyler said.
"We also designed a more simplified core for the molecules by replacing sugar fragments with smaller and cheaper carbon versions," Zubkova said.
"The new products will be easier to make, and allow us to prepare larger amounts for testing."
Early stages of the research were funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).
Tyler expected the remainder of the preclinical tests to take two years, and if successful, the end product could be launched in clinical trials.
KiwiNet's commercialisation manager, Dr James Hutchinson, said the home-grown technology promised to provide a much-needed breakthrough for the millions of people affected by Alzheimer's disease world-wide, with the potential to reach a $9.4 billion global market.
"KiwiNet will provide commercialisation support alongside the investment, as we do with all our PreSeed investment projects.
"In addition to having the potential to have a major global health impact, this technology could help generate millions of dollars in returns to the New Zealand economy, both through export earnings and driving job creation in New Zealand's biotech sector."
Anne Barnett, the general manager of commercialisation at the university's commercial arm, Viclink, said the research had exciting potential.
"There are other drugs currently undergoing clinical trials that target the same mechanism, however our drug candidates work differently and are expected to have far fewer side effects."