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High Hopes for New Drug Discovery Center

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June 10, 2009 | by Megan Fellman
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Cancer has been with us for millennia, with the oldest known description of the disease and its treatment dating to around 1600 B.C., written on an Egyptian papyrus. Despite modern advances in chemotherapies, radiation and surgical techniques, doctors continue to grapple with finding the best ways to treat the deadly disease.

Northwestern University’s Center for Molecular Innovation and Drug Discovery, a new and enlarged version of the former Center for Drug Discovery and Chemical Biology, promotes an interdisciplinary approach to drug discovery that researchers hope will lead to effective new therapeutics to combat cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and a host of other medical conditions.

“Fifty percent of people who get cancer will die from it,” said Raymond Bergan, M.D., associate professor of hematology/oncology at the Feinberg School of Medicine. “It’s the second leading cause of death in the United States and will get worse as the population ages. The major killers that have been killing us for centuries are still killing us today, so we obviously need better drugs.”

According to Bergan, who researches prostate cancer, there are several reasons why it is difficult for the scientific community to find drugs that successfully fight cancer. One of the roadblocks is the reluctance of researchers to work together across disciplines. That is why Bergan has paired with Karl Scheidt, Irving M. Klotz Research Professor in Chemistry at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, to co-direct the Center for Molecular Innovation and Drug Discovery (CMIDD).

“Drug discovery requires people from very different backgrounds,” said Bergan. “We need chemists to create new small molecules, biologists to analyze them in the laboratory and physicians to understand the concepts related to humans.”

The Center for Drug Discovery and Chemical Biology, established in 1996 and recently directed by Linda Van Eldik and D. Martin Watterson, focused on the translation of preclinical discoveries into clinical applications. Now the baton has been passed on to Scheidt and Bergan. The new directors plan to expand the mission to include the creation and biological screening of novel small molecules for use as potential new “hits” for therapeutic development and for synthesizing tools to identify and understand new biological processes of medical relevance.

Northwestern has teamed up with the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago to build a state-of-the-art chemical library that will help identify new molecular compounds for drug discovery and store them in an accessible and systematic way.

The three universities recently received a $9.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and a $2 million Lever grant from the Chicago Biomedical Consortium to establish the Chicago Tri-Institutional Center for Chemical Methods and Library Development.

“What happens is that biologists have great ideas about some pathway to finding a new treatment, but they don’t have any way to make the compounds that they want to use,” said Scheidt, co-principal investigator on the grants. “They can call a chemical supply company, but then they are at the mercy of what’s available there.”

Scheidt says the creation of small molecule collections, or chemical libraries, will put CMIDD’s interdisciplinary vision into practice by bringing chemists together with biologists to create tailor-made compounds for future drug discovery. These compounds then will be stored locally and linked to a searchable database.

The chemical library is just one piece of the enterprise that CMIDD will build at Northwestern. The plan is to develop a center that coordinates and drives all small-molecule research with therapeutic purposes at the University.

“Our goal is to provide expertise, guidance and assistance to people who have ideas for any type of drug discovery,” said Bergan.

Funding for the new center began in January 2009, and some personnel have already been hired. Scheidt says that new instruments are needed and should be in place this summer. With plans for a permanent home in Richard and Barbara Silverman Hall for Molecular Therapeutics and Diagnostics, he says the entire operation should be up and running by the end of the year.
Topics: University