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New $11 Million Center to Speed Drug Discovery

A grant from the National Institutes of Health will help establish the Chicago Tri-Institutional Center for Chemical Methods and Library Development.

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October 29, 2008 | by Megan Fellman
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Scientists from Northwestern University, the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago have received a $9.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to establish the Chicago Tri-Institutional Center for Chemical Methods and Library Development.

"We have a really talented group of organic chemists in the Chicago area," said Karl Scheidt, the Irving M. Klotz Research Professor in Chemistry at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern and a co-principal investigator. "Now we will have all the key players at the same table, working together to solve big biomedical problems. We expect to generate new molecules that never would have been created separately."

The Chicago Biomedical Consortium, which is funded by The Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust, has awarded a $2 million Lever grant to support the core infrastructure of the center and to make its resources available to the entire Chicago scientific community. The grant was essential in securing the NIH support.

Scheidt, whose research includes the synthesis and investigation of bioactive molecules, will collaborate with investigators at the two other institutions to develop new ways of building state-of-the-art chemical libraries that will help identify new compounds for future drug development and basic biomedical research.

The new center joins a consortium of four other NIH-funded Chemical Methods and Library Development centers across the country established to address the national shortage of small molecule development capabilities.

The center's work will focus on the rapid synthesis of organic molecules for use as small molecule probes and potential new "hits" for therapeutic development. These compounds will be collected into libraries, where they can be used in high-throughput biological screening endeavors across the country. The center's innovative approach is to invent new types of molecules on which industry has not traditionally focused its attention.

"The rapid production of new types of small molecules of interest will enable basic research to impact human health more quickly," said Scheidt. "The increased efficiency should ultimately accelerate translational 'bench-to-bedside research.'"

Scheidt and his research group are developing innovative strategies for cancer treatment and prevention based on anticancer compounds isolated from nature. They are using tailor-made small molecules to disrupt tumor cell movement -- an approach that could lead to new ways to prevent cancer's spreading throughout the body.

With the right personnel and equipment in place, scientists using the new center's facilities will be able to synthesize new compounds 10 to 50 times as fast, says Scheidt. Improving the efficiency will allow researchers to spend more time probing what the small molecules may be good for, such as slowing the progression of Alzheimer's disease or inhibiting the spread of cancer from a primary tumor. Then they can chemically tweak the molecules to add certain attributes and improve the effectiveness.

"Northwestern will have a new resource for the high-throughput chemical synthesis of desired molecules, located in the Richard and Barbara Silverman Hall for Molecular Therapeutics and Diagnostics," said Scheidt. The facility, which will be affiliated with Northwestern's Chemistry of Life Processes Institute and Center for Drug Discovery and Chemical Biology, will be open to all Chicago-area academic scientists.

Many existing drugs share similar molecular structures. Future advances in drug discovery and basic biomedical research depend on the ability to more efficiently synthesize new compounds with significantly different molecular structures.

"In order to develop new drugs, you need to start with new compounds," said Sergey Kozmin, center director, principal investigator and associate professor in chemistry at the University of Chicago.

The chemical libraries that the Chicago Tri-Institutional Center produces will be readily available to many biology labs across the nation. The center also will broadly test for potential use against neurodegenerative disorders, infectious diseases and other therapeutic targets.

The other co-investigators working with Scheidt and Kozmin are Hisashi Yamamoto, the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor in Chemistry; Viresh Rawal, professor in chemistry; Milan Mrksich, professor in chemistry; and Stephen Kron, associate professor in molecular genetics and cell biology, from the University of Chicago; and Vladimir Gevorgyan, professor of chemistry; and Jie Liang, professor of bioengineering, from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"Each of these groups has expertise in different areas of organic chemistry," said Kozmin. "The idea is to combine this intellectual effort in order to produce these new molecules much more efficiently than anything that has been done before."

"The NIH and CBC awards begin a new chapter in an increasingly rich history of discovery arising from chemical synthesis efforts at Northwestern," said Scheidt. "We are excited to explore the potential of new compounds resulting from this tri-institutional effort and anticipate the center will be a driving force behind new biomedical discoveries throughout the Chicago area and the nation."