With the ADDA about to enter its third year of existence, several structural challenges are emerging that are not unique to this drug discovery program. The first main problem is the lack of resources for medicinal chemistry efforts, once hits have been identified. To go from hit to lead requires significant time and money, which cannot be covered by our modest pilot funding. Traditionally, funding from NIH resources for chemistry has been scarce; however, institutes such as NINDS have appropriated new Medicinal Chemistry for Neurotherapeutics contracts for fiscal year 2010, recognizing that “the need for medicinal chemistry in the NIH community has grown in recent years as non-drug compounds with therapeutic potential have been identified in many disease areas.” As noted above, another way forward is to partner with commercial entities; in this regard, UAB and SR are participants in a joint venture with Jubilant Life Sciences, which was initiated in the fall of 2009. The premise of the joint venture is to enhance development capabilities by leveraging resources of all three parties while developing joint IP. This joint venture, called UniTria Pharmaceuticals, will focus on leveraging the collective enabling technologies for drug discovery, in areas of oncology, metabolic disease and infectious disease, with the goal of accelerating the development of innovative therapies. Key focus areas of UniTria Pharmaceuticals include
- selecting the most promising biological targets for unmet medical need, discovered by biomedical researchers at UAB, SR and Jubilant;
- developing new molecules around these targets through discovery and development activities performed at UAB, SR and Jubilant;
- using early research data to secure funding to create new research jobs;
- developing drugs through preclinical, phase 1 and early phase 2 clinical trials to maximize value to potential licensees, securing partnerships with the pharmaceutical industry; and
- licensing drugs to the pharmaceutical industry.
The joint venture is owned and invested in by all three parties, ensuring that both academic and commercial interests are represented in the decision-making processes on project selection and implementation. Within the limits of available funding, UniTria intends to invest sufficient resources to get a compound to clinical trials. The first projects are currently being selected for acceptance into the JV, and progress in the next few years will determine the success of this approach.
In the same vein, partnerships with additional commercial entities for individual projects are certainly encouraged, which again illustrates the importance of early and frequent involvement of IP licensing associates in the project team meetings.
Another major challenge that we anticipated and indeed encountered is the need for educating the academic community about the drug discovery process. Many investigators are, understandably, naïve about what it takes to go from bench to bedside, beyond the initial identification of hit compounds in a primary screen. This lack of understanding is being remedied at the graduate level with courses on drug discovery in UAB’s Howard Hughes ‘Med into Grad’ Program as well as the general UAB Graduate Biomedical Sciences program; both programs interface with SR for faculty lecturers and internships. However, to educate the current generation of biomedical researchers, the ADDA organizes symposia and invites external speakers to present seminars that highlight various aspects of the drug discovery pipeline; these events are generally well-attended, illustrating the interest of the faculty body in translational research. In addition, an educational course is currently under development that is open to scientists from any level at either institution. Together with the visible success of the drug discovery projects in the ADDA portfolio, we hope to stimulate further education and interest in academic drug discovery.
The ADDA is only one of many academic drug discovery programs that have been established in the United States in recent years; listings of these programs can be found in other publications (16
), although a comprehensive review of their activities and organization is lacking to date, and is beyond the scope of this article. However, the ADDA is clearly unique in its collaborative model between UAB and SR, as compared to universities that have started internal drug discovery centers and acquired the associated HTS equipment, compound libraries and expertise. The contributions of the long-term success and expertise in drug discovery at SR and the basic biology and clinical strength at UAB provide this partnership with the means to have a significant impact in new drug discovery and development. All academic drug discovery programs vary greatly with respect to, for example, infrastructure, intellectual and financial support and disease focus areas. Nonetheless, the challenges mentioned above are relevant for all these programs; it would be beneficial to have a conversation on an international level to exchange best practices and solutions to some of these hurdles to successful academic drug discovery.