Inaugural Drug Discovery Showcase reveals depth of expertise in the Triangle area

August 10, 2018

drug discovery showcase audience duke
Attendees take in the inaugural Drug Discovery Showcase at Duke University's Trent Semans Center.

The discovery and development of new therapeutic drugs has long been considered the province of industry, not academia. Pharmaceutical companies, by necessity, have the resources and expertise to bring a drug to market.

However, leading academic institutions from the North Carolina Research Triangle area came together at Duke University on August 6th to challenge this conventional wisdom. The Drug Discovery Showcase was a first-of-its-kind event where researchers demonstrated capabilities and breakthroughs that surprised even their colleagues.

Speaking to a packed house at Duke’s Trent Semans Center were representatives from Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, North Carolina Central University, and the research nonprofit RTI International.

Prof. Donald McDonnell, PhD, who co-hosted the event with Duke CTSI Accelerator, explained his view of how academia could overturn the perception that only pharma develops new drugs.

“While it’s difficult for one institution to provide all the resources needed, if we take our collective experience and capacity, we have the basic cores to pull drug discovery programs together,” he said.

McDonnell, who is chair of the Duke Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology, said he feels there is ample expertise and enthusiasm in academia to make robust drug discovery collaborations a reality. “Most of us would love to say we brought a drug into the clinic and helped patients.”

The speakers supported his theory by demonstrating an impressive array of facilities and skillsets.

Ronnie Maitra of RTI International highlighted their in-house capability to do everything from screening and assays to clinical trials. Sudarshan Rajagopal, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Duke, backed this up by showing how he’d worked with Maitra and his colleagues to do sophisticated data analysis supporting his research on Biased Agonists—the selective activation of cellular pathways, a key element of drug development.

David Gooden, Director of Duke’s Small Molecule Synthesis Facility (SMSF), joked that SMSF was located “behind yards of nuclear-proof concrete, and the smell is objectionable.” But, he added, in 15 years they have put thousands of compounds in the hands of Duke investigators. “We are the opening at the funnel of discovery.”

Scott Cousins, the Robert Machemer, M.D., Professor of Ophthalmology at Duke, was one of those investigators. His collaboration with Gooden led to a family of patents and a spin-out company, Eyedesis.

John Scott, Associate Professor at North Carolina Central University, talked about the NCCU BRITE facility’s substantial capacity for high throughput screening and drug discovery. The facility also has one of the largest proprietary compound libraries in academia, he said.

David Drewry and Alison Axtman, both of UNC Chapel Hill’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy, introduced the Structural Genomics Consortium, which catalyzes research in new areas of human biology and drug discovery.

Drewry explained their unique model for sharing discoveries. “We do open science, and don’t protect intellectual property.”

For many investigators, however, patenting and commercializing discoveries is the best way to make them available to patients. Bryan Baines of the Duke Office of Licensing and Ventures encouraged researchers to get in touch with technology transfer professionals as early as possible in the discovery process.

“It’s best to work with us to disclose your findings before you publish them. Once they’re published, they can no longer be patented,” Baines said, adding that his office is eager to engage with investigators at any stage (including post-publication) to find the best path forward.

McDonnell, in his closing remarks, said, “I’m amazed at the depth of drug discovery expertise in the Triangle. Our biggest hope is that new collaborations will be formed out of this.”

Duke CTSI Accelerator offers funding programs to support collaborations between Duke principal investigators and counterparts at UNC, NCCU, NC State University, RTI, and others. Visit our funding page to learn more and apply.