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Award honors Conn’s mental health research contributions

Oct. 12, 2017, 9:07 AM


Jeffrey Conn, Ph.D., founding director of the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery, has won a 2017 Research & Hope Award from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) for outstanding research in the area of mental health.

Jeffrey Conn, Ph.D.

Conn’s citation for excellence in Academic Research was one of five Research & Hope Awards presented Oct. 10 during PhRMA’s annual award dinner in Washington, D.C. The honorees were selected by the Scientific Advisory Board of the PhRMA Foundation.

“The award recipients are inspirational leaders in mental health research, support and advocacy,” PhRMA president and CEO Stephen Ubl said in a news release. “We are grateful for their extraordinary commitment to helping patients build better and healthier lives.”

“To be selected for this honor is a major highlight of my career,” said Conn, the Lee E. Limbird Professor of Pharmacology at Vanderbilt.

“The PhRMA Foundation has long been a leader in supporting cutting edge biomedical research that is leading to discovery of life-saving medicines,” he said. “They provided my first extramural research grant awarded to my lab almost 30 years ago.”

Conn and his colleagues have pioneered a novel approach to treating neurological and psychiatric disorders using compounds called allosteric modulators. Rather than turning a receptor “on” or “off” (what traditional drugs usually do), allosteric modulators “tune” the receptor function up or down, like a dimmer switch in an electrical circuit.

The researchers have discovered promising candidates for treating a wide range of disorders including Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and Fragile X syndrome.

One of those drug candidates was administered July 29 to the first volunteer enrolled in a first-in-human phase 1 clinical trial at Vanderbilt. Animal studies suggest that the compound, a small molecule called VU319, may have potential for reducing memory impairments in brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.

Another potential drug, currently advancing through regulatory studies required before initiating clinical trials, could provide a fundamentally new approach for treatment of psychosis in patients suffering from schizophrenia and other forms of major mental illness.

Conn received a Ph.D. in Pharmacology from Vanderbilt in 1986 and pursued postdoctoral studies at Yale University before joining the faculty in Pharmacology at Emory University in 1988.

In 2000 he was named senior director and head of Neuroscience at Merck and Co. in West Point, Pennsylvania. In addition to directing drug discovery efforts in multiple areas, Conn was responsible for overseeing global efforts to discover new therapeutic agents for treating schizophrenia and movement disorders.

He returned to Vanderbilt in 2003 where he helped found the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery (VCNDD) to facilitate translation of recent basic science advances to novel therapeutics. By 2011 the center had grown to approximately 100 full-time scientists and had raised more than $100 million in external funding.

Conn has received numerous awards for his research. He has served as associate editor and editor-in-chief of the journal Molecular Pharmacology and as chair of the Neuropharmacology Division of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.

PhRMA represents the country’s leading biopharmaceutical research companies, which have invested more than half a trillion dollars in developing new drug treatments since 2000.

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