April 5, 2012

Vanderbilt takes center stage at TEDxNashville

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Vanderbilt’s Jeff Conn, Ph.D., talks about drug development at last week’s TEDxNashville event. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Vanderbilt takes center stage at TEDxNashville

In the span of 18 minutes, neuroscience became real for the intellectually curious at TEDxNashville on Saturday as Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Jeff Conn, Ph.D., took to the stage to talk about progress in new medicines for brain disorders.

Conn began his talk at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center with examples from his own family, members of which (like half the U.S. population) have been impacted by brain disorders including schizophrenia, autism and Alzheimer’s disease.

Conn, Lee Limbird Chair in Pharmacology and director of the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery (VCNDD), went on to recount the history of drug development in the United States, beginning at a time when scientists took plants with medicinal properties and synthesized them into new medicines

“While [this] has been fruitful, we have mined this goldmine,” said Conn. “This approach is no longer capable of yielding breakthrough medicines to treat the most troubling human diseases.”

In a more rational approach, scientists now begin with a hypothesis and then move toward clinical use. Still, the process to develop a new medicine from beginning to end costs $1.8 billion, said Conn, and only three out of 10 medicines that make it to market pay for themselves.

Typically, new approaches for treatment of human disease that arise from academic efforts go untested and may be deemed “too risky” for investment by the private sector. However, some universities, including Vanderbilt, are incorporating drug discovery into their academic research, moving discoveries toward development suited for clinical studies.

In order to offer new hope in realizing the promise of recent breakthroughs in brain research, foundations, universities, government and companies must be creative in their approach to partnerships, he said.

Conn ended his talk with a photo of a nephew with cystic fibrosis at a CF event to raise awareness and funding. Thanks to a new medicine, the little boy is making great strides, Conn said, and he illustrates that everyone can play a role.

“We can all be involved at some level,” said Conn. “Even running in a run. While the challenges in developing new medicines for brain disorders are real, they are not insurmountable.”

Conn was among an impressive line-up of speakers at TEDxNashville, which included Tom Weiler, Ph.D., professor of Physics and Astronomy; Tom Dillehay, Ph.D., Rebecca Webb Wilson University Distinguished Professor of Anthropology; and David Onoprishvili, Ph.D., professor of Economics, also represented Vanderbilt University.

TEDx events are locally organized conferences patterned after TED (Technology, Education and Design), a global series of conferences begun in 1984 to promote “ideas worth sharing.”

For more information, visit TEDxNashville.com.