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R. Steve Dick/University Relations

Scott Weir is the director of the Office of Therapeutics, Discovery and Development. The office encourages collaboration among researchers to discover and develop new drug products.

Collaboration is the CURE

Scott Weir is matching researchers on two campuses to create greater, faster results

It's Scott Weir's job to bring people together.

And when the right people work together, the results can be nothing short of amazing. Discovering and developing new drugs to treat cancer, bone disease, liver diseases, diabetes and other ailments are among the hopes of the people Weir forms research partnerships between.

A long-time veteran of pharmaceutical research and development, Weir was hired last year to lead the Office of Therapeutics, Discovery and Development.

From his offices at the KU Medical Center and Lawrence campuses, Weir looks for collaborative opportunities for life sciences faculty to get involved in drug discovery and development programs. He gives the example of researchers at KU Med studying the nuclear receptor of a liver cell.

Doug Koch/University Relations

Val Stella, Distinguished Professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, was one of the researchers instrumental in the development of Nanotax, the first drug delivery product developed through KU's Office of Therapeutics, Discovery and Development that wiill be marketed commercially.

"They're looking at what this particular receptor does," Weir said. "What role does this receptor play in the development or prevention of disease?"

Meanwhile, medicinal chemists and other researchers on the Lawrence campus have the expertise to synthesize potential drugs that can turn the receptor on or off. Further, pharmaceutical chemists have the ability to develop ways of delivering potential drugs to the nuclear receptor. Such collaborations lead to the creation of drug discovery projects. Project teams are formed, made up of researchers from many disciplines from within as well as outside of the university. The project teams are empowered to define the overall objectives and project plans. Projects are implemented with potential drugs advanced through a series of decision points to rationally advance the most promising drugs and quickly eliminate the failures. These projects have the potential of discovering and developing new therapeutic agents for patients.

"We're not thinking of these as Med Center projects, or Lawrence campus, or KU School of Medicine-Wichita projects, they're University of Kansas projects," Weir said.

Currently, there are about 34 drug projects in the KU pipeline, which are being carried outh through what Weir calls "high-level collaboration."

KU's goal is to develop a balanced portfolio of low and high risk drug projects. Discovering and developing a new drug is difficult, as approximately one of every 10,000 treatments will make it to market. A lower risk, higher probability of success method is to take drug delivery projects drugs the Food and Drug Administration have approved as safe and effective and improve them. One example is the antic cancer agent Taxol. Some patients develop allergic reactions to an active ingredient in its formulation. KU researchers Val Stella, Distinguished Professor of Pharmaceutical cCemistry; Roger Rajewski, associate research professor at the Higuchi Biosciences Center; and Bala Subramaniam,, professor of chemical and petroeum engineering; partnering with a local pharmaceutical company, CritiTech, have co-developed Nanotax, which will deliver the active ingredient in Taxol more safely.

Nanotax is the first drug product developed at KU that will be taken to cancer patients. If the clinical trials are successful, CritiTech will bring the product to market later this year.

The question often arises as to why universities get involved in drug discovery and development. Weir said there are three distinct reasons KU is in the game.

"One is obviously for the patients," he said. "We want to improve health care, to bring promising new drugs to patients who live in our region."

The process also fits with the academic mission of a university. Training in drug discovery and development will prepare students for pharmaceutical careers in academia or industry.

The work also provides an opportunity for KU to commercialize its academic property and make an impact on the economic growth of the region. The cost of testing, developing and commercializing a new drug can often reach as high as $1 billion.

"Given that cost, we're probably never going to take something all the way to market, but we can license products to companies who have the resources to take a drug to market. We'll do as much of the discovery and early development within the university as is possible and practical," Weir said.

Pharmaceutical research puts the university in position to increase research funding. Improved drugs and treatments mean better care for patients, and world-class research helps brings industry to the area.

Weir pointed to the recent announcement by OncImmune, a British research company that will commercialize a new test to detect breast cancer. A major factor in the company's decision to locate in the Kansas City area was the opportunity to collaborate with pharmaceutical chemistry scientists who conduct research on the Lawrence campus. Chancellor Robert Hemenway has stated KU's top priority is to achieve National Cancer Institute designation of the KU Cancer Center. One vision of the center is to be the best in the nation at bringing promising anti cancer agents from the test tube to patients.

"What really sets us apart from the majority of cancer centers across the nation is that we possess the necessary pieces to be successful in drug discovery and development," Weir said.

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February 5, 2007 : Vol. 31, No. 10

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