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Vanderbilt joins national consortium to develop new cancer therapies

NASHVILLE, Tenn. Vanderbilt University has been selected as one of 10 centers in the nation to participate in the Chemical Biology Consortium (CBC), a major new initiative to facilitate the discovery and development of new agents to treat cancer.

As one of four Chemical Diversity Centers, Vanderbilt's role in the consortium will be to synthesize and optimize new compounds as potential cancer therapeutics.

"This is a real tribute to our growth in cancer chemistry and the leverage between the Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology (VICB) and the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC)," said Lawrence Marnett, Ph.D., the Mary Geddes Stahlman Professor of Cancer Research and director of the VICB.

Alex Waterson, Ph.D., research assistant professor of Pharmacology and director of the VICB's Chemical Synthesis Core, will lead efforts developing small molecule drug candidates. Gary Sulikowski, Ph.D., Stevenson Professor of Chemistry and a co-director of the core, will direct projects involving natural products.

Designed to accelerate the discovery and development of effective, first-in-class targeted therapies, the CBC will choose high-risk targets that are of low interest to the pharmaceutical industry. The CBC is a National Cancer Institute initiative administered by contractor SAIC-Frederick, Inc.

"It's exciting in the sense that, right off the bat, (the NCI) said that the goal of this program is to develop drugs for cancer treatment," said Sulikowski. "They're looking for unique targets, unique approaches, and they think that academia may offer that."

"Oftentimes pharmaceutical companies will not go after targets that are not expected to be huge blockbusters," said Waterson, who came to Vanderbilt in 2008 from GlaxoSmithKline where he had worked for seven years on oncology drug development projects. "So an effort like this can fill in a niche that industry is not taking on at the moment."

One particular area of interest is in screening and developing natural products as potential drug candidates.

This "is something that pharmaceutical industry has de-emphasized just because of the way things have evolved," said Sulikowski. "And that's one of our advantages, in that we have expertise in natural products as well as medicinal chemistry."

Cancer drug development poses many challenges but also unique opportunities.

"There is a difficulty in that cancer is not a single disease; it's a family of loosely related diseases," said Waterson. "There's an opportunity for a whole myriad of different treatments that are pretty much only tailored to a small subset of people, where your treatment addresses their specific need."

A unique aspect of the CBC is the NCI's efforts to establish intellectual property rights for investigators and institutions that develop assays or drug candidates.

"The hope is that by recognizing establishment of intellectual property as one of the goals, they will attract people with the best ideas, things that really might be able to become a drug," said Waterson.

Vanderbilt's involvement with the CBC, along with the recent arrival of Stephen Fesik, Ph.D., who previously led cancer drug discovery efforts at Abbott Laboratories, will make Vanderbilt "one of the best academic institutions doing cancer drug discovery in the country," Marnett said.

Other Vanderbilt investigators involved in this effort include:

  • Brian Bachmann, Ph.D., assistant professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry
  • Jeffrey Johnston, Ph.D., professor of Chemistry
  • Jens Meiler, Ph.D., assistant professor of Chemistry, Pharmacology and Biomedical Informatics
  • Craig Lindsley, Ph.D., associate professor of Pharmacology and Chemistry, and director of Medicinal Chemistry

Other sites participating in the CBC are:

  • The Burnham Institute for Medical Research, in La Jolla, Calif.;
  • Southern Research Institute in Birmingham, Ala.;
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill;
  • Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.;
  • University of Minnesota;
  • University of Pittsburgh;
  • University of Pittsburgh, Drug Discovery Institute;
  • University of California, San Francisco;
  • SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif.; and
  • Emory University in Atlanta


Contact: Melissa Marino
Vanderbilt University Medical Center

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