Mankind has cause to be eternally grateful for the wide variety of medicines and treatments developed over the generations. Many people owe their lives to new drugs, while many more enjoy longer life expectancy and a good quality of life.

But inevitably, some drugs that show initial promise fail to make the grade for a variety of reasons. One is that they they lack the ability to cross into various compartments, such as the brain.

The addition of sugars can facilitate membrane transfer and so help with the penetration and effectiveness of drugs.

The sugars used are nothing like the ones we see in everyday life, but a variation on the world’s most common substance.

GlycoForm, spun out from Oxford University in 2002 by Dr Ben Davis and Dr Antony Fairbanks, researches attaching sugars to proteins and other molecules.

Chief Executive Dr David Scales explained: “Everything has to have a tag these days, so we call two of our areas BioBetters and BioRetrieve.

“BioBetters involves taking existing molecules, ones that are already on the market, and ‘bolting on’ sugars to improve them. One therapy that is on the market needs a daily injection because it has a very short half-life.

“Adding the sugar increases the half-life, so the injections are only needed once a week. That’s a huge improvement to the patient’s quality of life.”

BioRetrieve brings back failed drugs. The addition of the sugars allows a drug to target a specific organ or penetrate a membrane to strike at its intended target. Suddenly, a failed drug can become a very useful weapon in fighting a disease.

With BioBetters, GlycoForm is looking to work with generic drugs companies. Drugs are invariably patented to allow the inventors to profit from their discoveries, but those patents will eventually lapse.

When they do, other drug companies can produce that same treatment, often at a fraction of the price. These are know as generic drugs.

Generic drug companies are happy with lower volumes: big pharmaceutical firms are not. They want projected sales of anything between £70m and £700m to consider taking a drug to market. That is why GlycoForm’s has its BioBetters strategy.

With BioRetrieve, the company examines scientific literature to pick its targets. Big pharmaceutical companies are generally reluctant to reveal or discuss failed drugs, but GlycoForm plans to try and exploit its links with such companies to modify hitherto unseen treatments to become effective. The third string to GlycoForm’s bow is novel molecules created around sugars, using the company’s exceptional skills in this area. The firm owns several patents on the links between sugars and proteins.

Dr Scales enjoyed a successful career spanning more than 20 years in the pharmaceutical industry. After moving into the biotechnology sector in 2000 and working with smaller companies, he was appointed chief executive of GlycoForm last July.

He said: “My background is drug development, more recently neurological drugs. Since my appointment, I have been leading a thorough review and refocusing of all our projects. Now two of our projects are in central nervous system treatments.”

In the current economic downturn, Dr Scales’ achievement in raising further finance from long-term supporters East Hill Management of Providence, Rhode Island, is no mean feat.

“Landon Clay, who is the Chief Executive of East Hill, is just so enthusiastic and knowledgeable,” Dr Scales said.

“We have a conference call with East Hill every couple of weeks and Landon himself visits us three or four times a year.”

The company moved to its Milton Park base after raising £1m of venture capital in 2004. Named after glycos, the Greek word for sugar, GlycoForm is a small company with just ten scientists, but research director Dr Chris Urch has assembled an international team including French, German, Australian and Indian experts. Nine staff have PhDs.

Dr Scales added: “We have just raised additional monies, but our cash burn has gone up too. We outsource work to other companies as far away as China and Finland, so there’s a cost involved.

“My job is to look after the cash reserves and manage risk and we have a very prudent approach to our spending.”

For small companies such as GlycoForm, the cost of laboratory equipment and consumables is high. Dr Scales is delighted with the savings achieved through membership of the Oxfordshire Bioscience Network purchasing scheme. Like all small biotechnology companies, GlycoForm cannot take a drug to market on its own and in the next few months will concentrate on licensing deals with big pharma companies.

The revenue from these deals will be used to fund the company’s own projects in biology and chemistry. But what about the future?

Dr Scales said: “We don’t want to grow too big. The team here is the best in the world at what it does and that’s why I want to lead it. We’re a small, flexible organisation, geared to react quickly to new opportunities. And that’s exactly what we plan to do.”