New center helps boost drug-discovery research

Author(s): Chris Adam
Photographs by: Steve Scherer and Mark Simons

Drug Discovery

A look inside the new Purdue Center for Drug Discovery.

Richard Kuhn hopes his work in Purdue’s research labs could lead one day soon to new treatments for dengue, a virus that affects several hundred million people each year. For now, there is no cure or approved vaccine for the virus.

Purdue, Houston Methodist enter partnership

Purdue University and Houston Methodist Research Institute plan to collaborate on research and educational initiatives, including clinical trials of drugs developed
at Purdue.

The partnership helps to advance the Purdue Moves drug discovery initiative to translate basic research into life-changing treatments.

Philip Low, Purdue’s Ralph C. Corley Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and inaugural director of the Purdue Center for Drug Discovery, says Houston Methodist is one of the top clinical trial hospitals in the world and has built an infrastructure that quickly brings innovations to the clinic. The collaboration will make that infrastructure available to Purdue researchers in the same way it would be available to the institute’s own faculty.

“They know exactly how to bring a drug from the bench top to the bedside and, so, with the strengths that we have at Purdue in discovering new drugs, Houston Methodist makes an ideal partner to really complete the entire journey from discovery to delivery,” he says.

The partnership is flexible and discussions are ongoing about the details of collaborative initiatives. An educational collaboration is important to both institutions, and Purdue graduate students may have the opportunity to work in the laboratories at Houston Methodist to help take the discoveries through to the point of clinical applications.

“The point of the partnership is to have open communication among researchers and clinicians so that they can learn from each other and work toward the common goal of translating discoveries into new treatments and technologies that benefit mankind,” Low says. “It is the first such partnership we have entered into, but we will likely establish similar relationships with one or two other institutions whose expertise aligns with ours in different areas of human health.”

-Elizabeth Gardner/Purdue News Service

But Kuhn, professor and department head of biological sciences and the Gerald and Edna Mann Director of the Bindley Bioscience Center, is among a team of scientists that has captured the structure of a protein that could lead to new treatment options for dengue. Researchers have pursued this protein for years because both its role in replication and its unique release into the bloodstream mark it as a target for treatment of infection.

“Identifying such a protein and then targeting molecules against that protein in drug development is one way to stop the progression of infections and viruses such as dengue,” Kuhn says.

And those steps are at the heart of Purdue’s drug discovery process, which begins at the nano level and ends with a viable human therapy that can reduce mortality and morbidity of disease. Adding to the University’s strengths in drug discovery and the capacity to translate basic research into life-changing treatments is among a series of Purdue Moves initiatives.

Members of the College of Science are at the center of this effort. That includes Philip Low, the Ralph C. Corley Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, who is the inaugural director of the Center for Drug Discovery. The center supports more than 100 faculty in six colleges with research focused on several major disease categories: cancer; diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular; immune and infectious disease; and neurological disorders and trauma.

“Purdue has decided that drug discovery is an area that we would like to emphasize to try and make up for what big pharma no longer does well,” Low says. “Layoffs and downsizings have created a vacuum in the drug discovery pipeline. The opportunity to meet this need and our pre-existing strengths in drug discovery together combined to make this a logical choice for Purdue.”

Major pharmaceutical companies are taking note of the work being done at Purdue and other research universities, particularly the early testing and validation of drug compounds. Those companies want to be confident in a drug candidate before pursuing it, especially since estimates show that it costs approximately $1.4 billion and takes a decade to bring a new prescription drug to the market.

One of Low’s goals for the Center for Drug Discovery is to create what he calls a drug translation culture at Purdue.

“I am going to encourage those working in the center to not only discover new information, but to ask right away if what they have discovered might be helpful in solving the tremendous medical problems facing society today,” Low says. “If we raise awareness on campus that our ultimate goal of life sciences research is to understand and improve human health, we will have science and other faculty who will collaborate with others across campus to share how their information might be relevant to the drug discovery process.”

Low says that means a researcher like Kuhn could come to him with discoveries from his biology labs that could translate into great targets for the development of new drugs.

Kuhn says, “We have a good culture of collaboration within the College of Science and outside of it. Our faculty know that having people with complementary disciplinary knowledge is required for success with drug discovery and the ability to move this whole process forward in a reasonable way.”

Low and directors of other Purdue centers with research focused on disease will meet regularly to share discoveries and ensure a unified, efficient progression of the research. This collaboration not only will help to advance Purdue’s role as a research leader in drug discovery, but will help the University increase funding from federal agencies and industry, Low says.

Timothy Ratliff, professor and the Robert Wallace Miller Director of the Purdue University Center for Cancer Research, says working together across all disciplines is a natural fit for Purdue because of the University’s strengths along all of the points of the drug discovery pipeline.

“No one stands alone. People from all areas of science work together to develop new drugs,” Ratliff says. “Mankind needs us to work together. Through our partnerships and collaborations, we can use shared resources to discover new vaccines and therapeutics that are very important for the treatment of diseases.”

Drug Discovery

Purdue president Mitch Daniels (center) shakes hands with Mauro Ferrari, the president and CEO of Houston Methodist Research Institute. Philip Low (left), Purdue's Ralph C. Corley Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, watches.