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Crossing the 'Valley of Death'
PHILADELPHIA—While harsh economic conditions continue to force large pharmaceutical companies and biotech firms to focus on the bottom line and scale back research and development budgets, researchers at the Wistar Institute and the Moulder Center for Drug Discovery Research are aggressively pursuing high-risk, high-reward drug development programs.
Wistar, an independent research institution, and the Moulder Center, an academic research center of Temple University, recently formed an alliance aimed at interrogating discoveries that have the potential for drug development.
"People talk about the valley of death, especially in hard economic times. Large drugs companies and biotechs are risk-adverse; they need to look at the bottom line, so interesting discoveries never get pursued. This is the vacuum we are trying to fill," says Dr. Dario Altieri, chief scientific officer and director of Wistar's Cancer Center.
The research conducted at Wistar is focused on new target identification and drug discovery for the institute's main research areas of cancer and immunology. Its research is aided by the advanced molecular screening facilities housed by the University of Sciences in Philadelphia, which partnered with Wistar in 2010. Aided by USP facilities and a large library of assays, researchers at Wistar have been highly successful in novel drug target identification.
The Moulder Center's medicinal chemists and pharmacologists will focus on "taking those targets discovered by Wistar scientists and developing innovative lead compounds which can impact those targets," says Magid Abou-Gharbia, director of the Moulder Center. "We are going to put in our man power and expertise and align it with the expertise of the structural biologists at Wistar to move the collaboration forward. It is a fully integrated collaboration that has all skills and abilities to discover new molecules."
The Moulder Center's primary responsibility is to address a novel compound's pharmaceutical properties. Researchers will focus on how a compound will be ingested, metabolized and excreted by the body in order to make it available for preclinical trials in animal models.
Several research projects have already been selected for further investigation, including inhibitors that target telomerase, a protein essential in cancer growth and the natural aging process, and Epstein-Barr, a virus responsible for numerous diseases including forms of head and neck cancer. Already underway is a line of research that focuses on inhibiting a class of molecular targets implicated in cancer.
The terms of the collaborators' agreement are exceedingly simple. Funding is provided solely from the research centers, with all costs split equally between them.
Emphasizing the trust and commitment between Wistar and the Moulder Center, Altieri says, "We will worry about the lawyers and intellectual property and royalties later." The objectives of the alliance are unimpeded by lengthy legal discussions. According to Altieri, "This is really an inter-institutional collaboration that is based on mutual commitment. There is no money transferred, no complex legal agreements. Our agreement simply formalizes and outlines our commitment to work together, but it's not a money issue. It's really an academic collaboration in its purest form. "