Andrew West, Ph.D., just as many other UAB researchers, seeks awards from the National Institutes of Health to fund new projects and ideas.
“But that is increasingly harder to do in the current economic climate,” says West, assistant professor of neurology. “The backlogged study sections at NIH now demand significant preliminary data to be competitive. That’s why mechanisms like the new Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance (ADDA) are important and exciting.”
|Neurologist Andrew West is the recipient of one of the first three $50,000 pilot grants awarded to UAB and SRI investigators by the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance.
The ADDA, a new collaboration between UAB and the Southern Research Institute (SRI), ensures that West will have the equipment and expertise necessary to conduct preliminary research that will lay a foundation for future NIH funding.
The ADDA alliance provides support for the Center of Clinical and Translational Science, the Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Southeast Regional Center of Excellence for Emerging Infections and Biodefense (SERCEB). It was formed this past fall to facilitate drug discovery and development using existing resources at UAB and SRI. These resources include molecular target identification, high throughput screening, 3D structure analysis of targets, iterative medicinal chemistry advanced with in silico screening, preclinical toxicology and ADME.
West received one of the first three $50,000 ADDA pilot grants awarded to investigators.
“This program is unique because it brings together SRI and UAB executives and junior researchers at the same table, which I think is a great strength,” West says. “To me, more important than the money itself, is that the people who are involved will ensure these projects move forward in a collaborative manner.”
The other inaugural award recipients include Timothy Garvey, M.D., and Youchang Fu, Ph.D., in Nutrition Sciences, and Krister Wennerberg at SRI.
The ADDA awarded the grants with the possibility of one additional year of funding if the progress goals are met. The scientists also will work with the UAB Research Foundation to protect their intellectual property.
Bench to bedside
“There is a big push from the NIH to tie the bench to the bedside — to complete basic research and translate it to the patient,” says Richard Whitley, M.D., director of the ADDA. “Now scientists have the opportunity to compete for $50,000 a year for two years to develop targets, pathways or drugs that will enhance both the institution and the investigators intellectual property.
Whitley says ADDA has all of the resources in place to be successful, citing UAB’s strong history of funding in cancer, neuroscience and infectious disease research, a long standing partnership with the SRI and many experienced investigators from which to draw.
“Any new science generated through this program will be managed by UAB, which will provide data back to each investigator for their grants. That is an important aspect of the alliance.”
He says the many clinical trials conducted at UAB also are an asset. “When compounds show success through ADDA research they can be linked to clinical trials here on campus,” he says.
West recently received a one-year grant from the American Parkinson Disease Association to develop an assay to find small molecules to inhibit a protein he believes is overactive and causes Parkinson Disease. But to fully exploit the technology, West needs to use high throughput screening, a method for scientific experimentation used in drug discovery that enables a researcher to quickly conduct millions of biochemical tests.
“We’re trying to take a novel approach to discovery by using living cells in our assays, and the drug-discovery grant is furthering our research by determining whether it’s possible to move the assay to a high throughput environment; the next step is the actual screening of hundreds of thousands of compounds,” West says. “We wouldn’t be able to do that without SRI because we don’t have the equipment or expertise to see whether our assay is amenable to high throughput.”
Strong partnerships are needed during this time of increasing emphasis on shared resources, he says.
“Everyone thinks this is a win-win,” West says. He hopes the same will be true with the assay.
“This is truly a pilot project, but if it works, there’s no doubt in my mind the NIH would fund a full-blown project to find drugs for Parkinson Disease using our approach,” West says. “It’s high risk, and we don’t know what will happen. But we have our fingers crossed.”
The School of Medicine, the Center for Clinical and Translational Science, the Comprehensive Cancer Center and SRI provide funding for the ADDA.
Representing UAB on the executive committee are Whitley, Ed Partridge, M.D., Eric Sorscher, M.D., Mark Walter, Ph.D., and Robert Kimberly, M.D. Whitley and Sorscher, director of the Gregory Fleming James Cystic Fibrosis Research Center, are co-principal investigators for the drug-discovery component of the CTSA grant, which was awarded to UAB by the NIH in 2008 to restructure the clinical research enterprise. Kimberly is the senior associate dean for research in the School of Medicine, and Partridge is the director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center. Walter is an associate professor of microbiology.
CEO Jack Secrist and Blaine Knight, vice president for drug discovery, represent SRI.