BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Promising new therapies for debilitating diseases like diabetes and Parkinson’s are stemming from drug discovery work taking place in Alabama research facilities – an effort that’s getting a $2 million infusion from two insurers.
At the center of this high-potential research is the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance (ADDA), a unique collaboration between development teams at Southern Research and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The ADDA provides the infrastructure and support to expedite the search for new insights and treatments.
Last month, Birmingham-based Protective Life and its parent Dai-ichi Life Insurance Co. of Japan announced plans for community giving that included the $2 million donation to the drug discovery partnership. That’s on top of $1 million ADDA gift from Protective in 2014.
“The Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance is helping talented researchers and scientists explore promising avenues of investigation that point toward new treatments for serious illnesses,” Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield said. “This generous financial gift will facilitate new breakthroughs from the experienced UAB and Southern Research teams working in Birmingham.”
UAB President Dr. Ray Watts said the gift from Dai-ichi and Protective will bolster the ADDA’s mission and strengthen the productive partnership between the two research-focused Birmingham organizations.
“We have about 18 new disease-changing therapies with tremendous commercial potential in the ADDA pipeline, and we are pushing hard to bring them to market as rapidly as possible,” Dr. Watts said. “This gift will help us accelerate that process for these new treatments that promise such an incredible impact on patient care and our economy.”
The ADDA discovery pipeline includes possible therapies for Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, kidney disease, Alzheimer’s, and many types of cancers.
“The Dai-ichi mission of ‘By your side, for life’ exemplifies what we and UAB are pursuing in our quest for new cures,” said Southern Research President and CEO Art Tipton, referring to the Japanese insurer’s slogan.
TRACKING A PARKINSON’S CULPRIT
UAB Associate Professor of Neurology Andrew West’s research into a possible breakthrough treatment for Parkinson’s is benefiting from the ADDA model. West has identified an enzyme called LRRK2 that plays a critical role in cell death that triggers the degenerative disorder of the nervous system. That’s important because Parkinson’s hasn’t seen a major new treatment in 50 years.
With LRRK2 as a target, screening machines at Southern Research were deployed to identify thousands of compounds that could act to block the enzyme. Then, medicinal chemists at Southern Research modified the most promising candidates to increase their potency and effectiveness. UAB researchers examined the data using spectroscopy machines to make additional improvements.
Thanks to this collaboration, West’s LRRK2 inhibitor could be ready for the first round of human testing this year.
In addition, the ADDA has generated other significant accomplishments and research producing promising discoveries:
- Last year, a $35 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases established the UAB-led Antiviral Drug Discovery and Development Center, which aims to create drugs for influenza, West Nile, SARS, dengue, and other viral threats. Southern Research scientists also are involved in the effort. UAB officials credit the ADDA’s success for the grant.
- Along ADDA lines, UAB and Southern Research recently set up a strategic partnership – the Alliance for Innovative Medical Technology, or AIMTech – to develop “life-changing” medical devices. AIMTech is targeting devices in five fields: cardiology, orthopedics, ophthalmology, rehabilitation engineering, and trauma.
- The ADDA is playing a role in the search for a drug that could revolutionize the treatment of diabetes. The work stems from a discovery by Dr. Anath Shalev of UAB, who pinpointed a protein that triggers a process that robs the body of insulin. She teamed with Southern Research scientists to identify a potential drug to restrict the protein. The promising lead compound is now being tested for side effects.
Southern Research’s Tipton said the $2 million Protective/Dai-chi donation, spread over two years, will have a major impact on the drug discovery partnership’s mission.
“At Southern Research, we have developed seven anti-cancer drugs that are currently on the market, and using the deep science and development tools that we used at Southern Research to develop those drugs, we have been working with UAB to jointly develop life-changing drugs in a range of disease indications,” said Tipton, who holds 34 U.S. patents and has led three pharmaceutical/biotech companies.
FILLING THE DISCOVERY GAP
The ADDA was formed in 2008 as a way to combine UAB’s strengths in basic biomedical research and clinical trial expertise with Southern Research’s long and successful track record in drug discovery. In addition to those seven FDA-approved drugs, Southern Research says it has had more than 20 new chemical compounds placed in clinical trials.
Officials at the two institutions see the ADDA as filling a critical gap that’s emerged in the drug discovery process. Because it can cost $1 billion to bring a new drug to market, pharmaceutical companies are growing more reluctant to invest in the necessary but risky basic research that leads to an approved treatment.
In response, universities and biotech companies have jumped into the action. Together, they now account for around a quarter of new drugs and about half of the scientifically innovative drugs approved by the FDA, especially those targeting unmet medical needs.
“Developing drugs is a very expensive road, so this well help accelerate some of the things that we’re doing to try to get drugs to market,” Tipton said in an interview with The Birmingham News/AL.com, referring to the Protective donation. “We’ll put it to work immediately.”
The ADDA acts a funding source and a support system to facilitate drug discovery and development. It pulls together the resources available at both UAB and Southern Research, and provides funding for projects at different stages of the process. Its network aligns scientific investigators with the proper chemists, pharmacologists, clinicians and intellectual property professionals to advance development.
UAB’s Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences and its Comprehensive Cancer Center are crucial collaborators in the ADDA.