Chemicals today, drugs tomorrow: U-M's new Center for Drug Discovery

Date: 
08/30/2012 - 10:30am

Written by Laura J. Williams, Phone: 734-615 4862, E-mail: laurajw@umich.edu.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - A new center at the University of Michigan will accelerate the progression to the marketplace of drugs under development at laboratories across campus.

Rick Neubig, director of the CDNM
Rick Neubig, director of the CDNM

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Q&A with Rick Neubig, director of the CDNM

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Called the Center for the Discovery of New Medicines (CDNM), it will coordinate and support work in a range of departments and schools to streamline drug discovery and development, support the translation of early research toward patient use -- a gray area where funding is scarce -- and fully leverage the technical capabilities and intellectual resources at U-M in service of discovering the therapies of tomorrow.

"The CDNM will be a central hub for a dynamic community of researchers working on cures for devastating diseases," said Phil Hanlon, U-M povost and executive vice president for academic affairs. "Making collaborations possible and offering expert guidance throughout the process will catalyze activity in this area."

Funding for early stage drug discovery -- identifying pathways involved in disease and finding ways to interact with those pathways -- has declined in the pharmaceutical industry. The National Institutes of Health has recently increased funding for translational research, but the investment is insufficient and many projects frequently languish without the financial support to conduct the next stage of development.

The CDNM is a virtual organization founded by multiple schools and departments at U-M that are involved in biomedical research. Through rapid-access seed grants and twice-yearly pilot grant competitions, the CDNM will fund crucial steps in the drug discovery process while linking facilities that are currently unconnected.

"There is a lot of exciting work happening in drug discovery at U-M, but it's fragmented," said Rick Neubig, professor of pharmacology and director of the CDNM. "By marrying the power of chemical diversity with the broad reach and expertise of Michigan biologists, we expect a big impact."

Disease areas in which U-M is making the most immediate progress are cancer, inflammation, orphan and metabolic diseases and neurodegeneration, Neubig said.

The participating organizations at U-M pooled about $500,000 a year for the next three years to distribute as grants. Neubig expects the CDNM will fund 10 to 15 projects a year. Tenure-track and research-track faculty members at U-M will be able to apply. Applications for the first round of grants are due Oct. 1.

"The NIH is increasingly awarding its research funding to translational areas like innovative pharmacology and drug discovery," said Dr. James O. Woolliscroft, dean of the U-M Medical School. "The center will help position us to compete for this funding."

The CDNM will also be a hub to connect U-M researchers with commercial partners and foundations, Neubig said, adding that he expected the CDNM to help stimulate the region's economy.

"The CDNM can really maximize the potential for academic drug discovery at U-M and accelerate the discovery of new therapeutics," said David Sherman, the Hans W. Vahlteich Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and associate dean for research and graduate education in U-M's College of Pharmacy and a Life Sciences Institute faculty member. "We hope this work will lead to increased business development around drug discovery, which has the potential ripple throughout the industry and the region."

The CDNM is distinguished from academic drug discovery efforts at other institutions by the breadth and depth of U-M's biomedical research, its capabilities in areas like medicinal chemistry and pharmacokinetics that are traditionally associated with the pharmaceutical industry, unique natural product extract libraries and a data-sharing system that increases efficiency and supports collaboration.

"Universities play a critical and growing role in early-stage drug discovery," said Dr. Jeff Leiden, chairman, CEO and president of Vertex Pharmaceuticals. "The work of academic researchers who are identifying and testing promising new targets and compounds is an important step in developing new breakthrough drugs for serious diseases. Collaborations between academic groups and biotech companies are increasingly important in discovering the next generation of transformational medicines."

U-M has the technological infrastructure critical to early stage drug development, but because the scientists working in this area are spread throughout the university, collaboration is sometimes difficult.

"We've seen firsthand the progress than can be made when scientists are able to work together spontaneously and smoothly," said Alan Saltiel, the Mary Sue Coleman Director of the Life Sciences Institute. "The CDNM will make it possible for scientists with promising discoveries to work together in new and highly productive ways to further develop potential treatments."

Funding for the CDNM has been provided by the College of Pharmacy, Comprehensive Cancer Center, Department of Internal Medicine, Department of Pathology, Endowment for the Basic Sciences, Life Sciences Institute, Medical School Office of Research and the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research. For more information, visit cdnm.lsi.umich.edu.

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