September 12, 2008

Vanderbilt joins high-tech drug discovery effort

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Craig Lindsley, Ph.D.

Vanderbilt joins high-tech drug discovery effort

Vanderbilt University has joined a new federally funded effort to develop chemical probes that may lead to new therapies for disease.

The Molecular Libraries Probe Production Centers Network, announced last week, is made up of nine U.S. centers, including the Vanderbilt Specialized Chemistry Center for Accelerated Probe Development, led by Craig Lindsley, Ph.D., associate professor of Pharmacology.

Vanderbilt's portion of the network grant, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will total $17.6 million over the next six years, Lindsley said.

The goal of the network is to increase the pace of development and use of small molecule probes, which can be minutely targeted to interact with specific cellular sites, federal officials said. Not only can such probes provide valuable information about cell function, they can identify targets for potential therapies for diseases as wide-ranging as cancer and mental illness.

“The information generated by this network will be important to developing a greater understanding of biology and its complexity, while hopefully discovering novel approaches to therapies and prevention, especially for rare or neglected diseases,” NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, M.D., said in a news release.

This is “a hot area in the biomedical sciences,” added Lindsley, a member of the Vanderbilt Program in Drug Discovery who arrived from Merck in 2006. “This grant will enable us to hire another six to 10 experienced medicinal chemists … (and) purchase state-of-the-art synthetic and medicinal chemistry equipment and technology,” he said.

Lindsley's co-principal investigators in the new center include Jeffrey Conn, Ph.D., director of the Vanderbilt Program in Drug Discovery; David Weaver, Ph.D., who directs the high-throughput screening facility in the Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology; and Jens Meiler, Ph.D., who will run the center's informatics core.

The Vanderbilt researchers currently are developing probes that could lead to new treatments for schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease and fragile X syndrome, among other disorders.

Thanks to the increased capacity, Lindsley expects that the specialized chemistry center will be able to develop and deliver 10 to 12 probes to aid research in centers throughout the country during each of the next six years.

By 2014, “hopefully the entire network will have developed over 500 new small molecule probes for molecular targets and pathways that previously did not exist,” he predicted. “These new tools should impact human health.”

Others in the network include:

• The Burnham Center for Chemical Genomics, and the Scripps Research Institute's Comprehensive Center for Chemical Probe Discovery and Optimization, both in La Jolla, Calif.;

• The Broad Institute Comprehensive Screening Center in Cambridge, Mass.;

• The NIH Chemical Genomics Center in Bethesda, Md.;

• The Johns Hopkins University Ion Channel Center in Baltimore, Md.;

• The Southern Research Institute's Specialized Biocontainment Screening Center in Birmingham, Ala.;

• The University of New Mexico Center for Molecular Discovery in Albuquerque, N.M.; and

• The University of Kansas Specialized Chemistry Center in Lawrence.