BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – At Southern Research Institute, scientists are researching novel cancer therapies, testing advanced materials at temperatures up to 5,000 degrees and developing solutions to daunting environmental challenges.
The not-for-profit research organization, whose main campus stands close to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, can offer clients a broad range of capabilities, according to Dr. Nancy Gray, vice president for corporate development. Southern Research, a frequent collaborator with UAB on research projects, has 500 employees and other locations in North Carolina and Maryland.
“As I approach different companies, one might know us as that cancer testing place, another might say, ‘Oh, you’re the inventor of Clofarabine’ (a drug for leukemia, solid tumors and autoimmune diseases), or, ‘Oh, you’re the guys who do testing of flue gasses for utilities.’
“But if you take Southern Research as a whole, what impresses people – even very large multinational companies – is the breadth of what we offer,” Gray said.
About half the work at Southern Research is in life sciences, the rest offers significant expertise in engineering and environment. When Gray leads a tour, she shows off all the robotics of the high throughput screening center, mass spectrophotometers in the analytical lab, a state of the art animal care facility, a selective catalytic reduction testing laboratory and a large structure testing apparatus.
Besides contract work, Southern Research is working hard to develop intellectual property through collaborations – at first with UAB, and then with others. The Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance (ADDA) is a model for this. The goal is new intellectual property that is licensable and will create revenue streams and jobs in the state of Alabama.
Dr. John “Jack” Secrist III, president and CEO of Southern Research, and Dr. Richard “Rich” Whitley, professor of pediatric infectious diseases at UAB, developed the ADDA program several years ago, and both institutions provided a pool of funds.
Teams that include at least one senior researcher at Southern Research and one at UAB can apply for funding, typically to seek small molecule therapeutics for some disease area. After internal peer-review, the top-ranked ideas are funded.
“I think we have had over 20 awards in the ADDA, and the number of active ones now is probably in the upper teens,” said Secrist. “A lot are cancer, and some are infectious disease, neurology and metabolic disease.”
Besides intellectual property, the alliance also generates data that helps researchers apply for NIH or other grants.One of the ADDA projects – a potential drug that shows promise to stall or reverse Parkinson’s disease – has “graduated” to further development and funding by UAB and Southern Research. UAB neurologist Dr. Andrew “Andy” West discovered a Parkinson’s disease target, and Southern Research chemists have tested compounds in their high throughput facility. Several classes of active compounds have been identified and they are being improved for potency, stability in the body, bioavailability and so forth.
The drugs “show good activity in every test that’s been examined thus far,” Secrist said.
“We recognized with this project that with the grant funding getting tighter and tighter, there needed to be a mechanism to advance projects beyond what the ADDA was intended for,” Secrist said. “UAB and Southern Research said, ‘Well, this is worth pushing, the data looks like we have nice intellectual property here, let’s not wait.’”
“This is very early stage,” Secrist said. “The object here is to develop new medical devices that will actually help people like neurosurgeons do their jobs better.”
As a medical device example, neurosurgeons and experts in areas like engineering will “sit around and problem-solve, and propose solutions,” Secrist said. “Out of that may come a prototype proposal that would need to be implemented… It could be done at Southern Research or it might be done by a student at UAB, depending on the complexity.”
Going forward, Southern Research plans to focus on intellectual property across the board, not only in life sciences with drug discovery, but also across the entire gamut of the organization.
“We consider it when we hire new, senior level people,” Secrist said. “If you don’t want to collaborate, you probably don’t want to work here.”
Southern Research is also incubating new business ventures from within, said Gray, using the up to $62 million sales price of its Brookwood Pharmaceuticals spin-off to create strategic investment fund.
Six active programs have been funded, including the soon-to-open catalyst testing facility. These internal investments will lead Southern Research to more intellectual properties and new business areas.