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Teaming Up for Drug Discovery

November 1, 2004

Teaming Up for Drug Discovery

New program links chemists and pharmaceutical scientists

By Eva Emerson
November 2004

Traditionally, the development of new drug therapies followed a linear course, with little interaction between the chemists who created new compounds, pharmacologists who studied the activity of the compounds in living systems, and physicians who evaluated the most promising drug candidates in clinical trials.

But as the drug discovery process has grown more sophisticated, the field has increasingly become a more interdisciplinary and collaborative endeavor.

In response, the USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences and the USC School of Pharmacy have launched the Interdisciplinary Program in Drug Discovery (iPIDD), a new program designed to strengthen graduate student training.

“By providing increased opportunity for interaction among chemists and pharmacologists, iPIDD will better prepare graduate students for working within the interdisciplinary model of drug discovery that is quickly becoming the norm in both industry and academia,” says Joseph Aoun, dean of USC College and holder of the Anna H. Bing Dean’s Chair. “Critically, the new program also supports our aim to tightly link research and training in fundamental fields like chemistry with related efforts in the applied sciences.”

The program, which will enroll its first class of students in fall 2005, will bring together faculty and students in the chemistry department with those in the department of pharmaceutical sciences.

“Students want this kind of interdisciplinary training, they want this kind of broad exposure,” says program director Charles McKenna, professor of chemistry and pharmaceutical sciences. “Working in an integrated pharmaceutical company, they will need to know more than just how to synthesize compounds. They will need to be able to talk with the pharmacologists and biologists.”

McKenna’s own work developing anti-viral and other drugs has benefited from his many collaborations with USC pharmaceutical scientists.

Tom Upton is the kind of student iPIDD has been designed to attract. Upton has informally pursued chances to take courses and get to know students and faculty in the pharmacy school. “My grandfather died of brain cancer, and that has been a motivating factor for me. I have aspirations of developing a cure for brain cancer some day,” Upton says. “So, I had a clear purpose in coming to graduate school—I want to go into the pharmaceutical industry.”

Upton is one of six chemistry doctoral students already benefiting from the new program. This fall, Upton and his peers at University Park are taking “Drug Design and Discovery,” an interdisciplinary, team-taught course offered by the pharmacy school. They are able to actively participate in the class, held seven miles away on the Health Sciences Campus, via a relatively low-cost, Web-based videoconferencing technology that McKenna set up for iPIDD.

“What we want to do is give chemistry students who are synthesizing drugs some exposure to how you look at the behavior of a drug in the body, and where it goes once it is in the body. When administered orally, how well does it make it into the bloodstream? Those are questions that must be addressed if a compound is eventually to have potential as an actual drug for the clinic,” McKenna says.

Access to advanced chemistry courses will provide pharmacy graduate students with a more sophisticated understanding of drugs as molecules ruled by chemical principles.

“What we’re trying to do [through iPIDD] is remove barriers—administrative, geographical and others—to make it easier for students to learn across disciplines,” McKenna says.

Ian Haworth, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences, will be the co-director of iPIDD. “We’ve been doing this informally for years, but formalizing it will enable more students to take part and help us tap the full potential of both departments. There’s a real need for this,” says Haworth.

Thinking about career options before they even start graduate school is a trend that has driven student interest in iPIDD, says Sarah Hamm-Alvarez, the Gavin S. Herbert Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences and a member of the program’s steering committee. “I think students are more concerned with getting a job after they graduate, and many employers [in science] are asking for more interdisciplinary experience. Some are demanding it,” she says.

Support from the deans and the work of department chairs Hanna Reisler of chemistry and Wei-Chiang Shen of pharmaceutical sciences, as well as co-director Haworth, and steering committee members Hamm-Alvarez and Amy Barrios, assistant professor of chemistry, have been crucial in making iPIDD a reality. In the future, McKenna looks forward to increasing participation by faculty from both the College and Pharmacy.

“Drug discovery is a focal point of the School of Pharmacy’s research and graduate education programs,” says Timothy M. Chan, dean of the School of Pharmacy.  “I am delighted in this joint effort with the department of chemistry because it provides us with a unique opportunity to synergize the development of a new direction for graduate education.”