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Une Collaboration Parfaite

USC College’s Charles McKenna wins competitive award and embarks on research with two French institutions on the creation of a novel contraceptive drug.

By Pamela J. Johnson
May 28, 2010

Winner of a Partner University Fund (PUF) award, Charles McKenna of USC College and his team will develop a new type of male contraceptive drug with researchers in France. Photo credit Philip Channing.

Winner of a Partner University Fund (PUF) award, Charles McKenna of USC College and his team will develop a new type of male contraceptive drug with researchers in France. Photo credit Philip Channing.

Charles McKenna, professor and chair of chemistry in USC College, has received a Partner University Fund (PUF) award enabling him to develop a new type of male contraceptive drug with researchers in France.

Of 78 proposals, McKenna's project was among 12 selected for the three-year funding. Other PUF laureates included researchers from Northwestern, Cornell and Princeton universities, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Beginning in July, McKenna and his team will begin working with researchers at the Institute for Structural Biology Jean-Pierre Ebel (IBS) and the Institut Albert Bonniot, both located in Grenoble. Aided by PUF’s $200,000 award, the teams aim to create a novel contraceptive drug for ultimate commercial use, based on structural analysis of Brdt — a testis-specific protein that plays an important role during sperm development.

With the McKenna team’s expertise in medicinal chemistry and the French teams’ skills in structural biology, the research will meet at the interface of chemistry and biology. Researchers will visit each other’s institutions during the collaboration, and conduct regular video conferences via iChat and Skype.

“The fact that we’re separated by 6,000 miles is no longer a major factor,” said McKenna, who was recently awarded the USC Provost’s Prize for Teaching With Technology. The prize recognizes faculty achievements in teaching and learning through the integration of technology into courses and curricula.

“What’s so exciting about this is that we’ll be engaging in a kind of collaboration that typically would be done with the Department of Biology or the Keck School of Medicine at USC,” he said. “But these biologists happen to be in Europe.”

The main French partner will be IBS, led by Carlo Petosa, an expert in structural biology and protein biochemistry with two other drug discovery projects ongoing. Petosa has produced 14 publications reporting novel structures and 21 structures deposited in the Protein Data Bank.

Grenoble is also emerging as one of Europe’s most important centers of nanochemistry and nanobiology research, McKenna said.

“At USC, the general impetus has been to globalize research,” McKenna said. “The emphasis has been mainly on the Pacific Rim. But there are also great research opportunities in Europe at this time and we should take advantage of this.”

In the past, the French educational and grant systems were very different from American institutions such as USC. But recently, France is undergoing a series of educational reforms, and their grant system is becoming more compatible with USC’s, easing the way for collaborations.

Perfectly fluent in French, McKenna has worked closely with researchers in France. He earned his B.A. in French literature (with honors) at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

He learned about the PUF opportunity during an Égide Foundation-sponsored trip to France last fall. Mireille Guyader, the scientific attaché for the Consulate General of France in Los Angeles, encouraged McKenna to apply for the PUF award.

“He speaks French and also writes in French fluently and was looking for a partner in biotechnical sciences,” Guyader said of McKenna. “That to me was a perfect fit for the PUF program. This is not a research-only program; it includes an educational component. Their project involves a significant number of students.”

McKenna’s team will consist of four or five postdoctoral and graduate student researchers. Distance learning technologies will also be used to offer seminars from one partner institution to the other. Biology students in France will be exposed to advanced techniques in inhibitor design and molecular modeling, and may participate in the dhemistry department’s Interdisciplinary Program in Drug Discovery based in the College. That program involves over 25 Ph.D. students in the College and USC School of Pharmacy, who will also benefit from the joint seminar programs.

An inventor on nearly 20 chemistry patents — one of which became the basis for founding what is a now-publicly owned drug development startup company — McKenna is also chair of the College’s Department of Chemistry. In addition to benefiting his own research, McKenna expects the collaboration to strengthen ties between his department and the two French institutions. The partnership may encourage graduate students in France to study at USC College. Conversely, USC postdoctoral students may receive special training in France.

The PUF was established in May 2007 under the auspices of the French American Cultural Exchange (FACE) Foundation. With private donations and contributions from the French government, PUF launched its first call for projects in September 2007 with the objective of supporting innovative and sustainable partnerships between French and U.S. institutions of research and higher education.