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Welch Foundation gives $1.6 million for drug discovery research

GALVESTON, Texas -- Thanks to a $1.6 million grant from the Welch Foundation, a coalition of six Gulf Coast institutions is launching a new initiative to develop innovative computational and chemical techniques intended to speed the development of new drugs and molecular tools for biomedical science.

The Welch Foundation funding will enable the John S. Dunn Gulf Coast Consortium for Chemical Genomics (GCC CG) to establish a computational chemistry research program. The program is designed to fund multiple projects that bring together innovative scientists involved with biomedical research and drug discovery: computational chemists, who work to produce computer models of real chemical systems that can be used to predict molecular properties; synthetic chemists, who specialize in building molecules designed for specific purposes; and biologists investigating systems can be applied to molecular intervention. Such studies are often the first step in the development of new drugs.

We're very grateful to the Welch Foundation for this gift, which continues its traditional mission of supporting the science of chemistry in Texas and also makes it possible for us to do medicinal chemistry that can have a real benefit for human health," said University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB) professor Scott R. Gilbertson, the project's principal investigator.

Gilbertson, who also holds one of UTMB's two Robert A. Welch Distinguished Chairs in Chemistry, said the studies funded by the program will focus on small molecules' effects on protein-protein interactions. Interactions between protein molecules are critical to many cellular processes. Developing molecules to control such interactions is becoming a central area in understanding cellular function as well as the discovery of important therapeutics.

"We think that collaborations between computational groups and synthetic groups in this area will promote better computing methods to predict molecular structure and function as well as better synthetic methods to check the computational predictions," Gilbertson continued. "At the same time, we'll be working on the first steps of discovering new drugs and scientifically useful small molecules."

The new program will complement the overall efforts of the GCC CG, according to Dr. Peter Davies, executive vice president for research at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and co-director of the consortium, which is part of the Gulf Coast Consortia (GCC), a collaborative alliance for interdisciplinary bioscience research and training including UTMB, UT-Houston, Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University, the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and the University of Houston. “The GCC CG was created to tackle the problem of finding molecules that can be used either as tools for research or potentially as new drugs, in a collaborative academic setting," Davies said. "This generous gift from the Welch Foundation will ultimately help us harness the power of computational chemistry to much more efficiently select the compounds that go into our screening centers."

Dr. Michael Mancini, also a GCC CG co-director and an associate professor of molecular and cellular biology at Baylor College of Medicine, echoed Davies' comments, citing as an example the new program's potential benefits for his own research group. "We are now developing the tools that allow us to screen molecules for important activity at high rates using microscopy-based approaches," Mancini said. “This grant will help us interface well with the chemists and evaluate new compounds more quickly."

Other GCC researchers also expressed their gratitude for the Welch Foundation's gift, including theoretical chemist B. Montgomery Petitt, director of the University of Houston's Institute for Molecular Design. “Computational chemistry is a real strength in the GCC, and it's exciting that the Welch Foundation and others support this important chemical design effort," Pettit said.

"With this gift, the Welch Foundation not only opens new opportunities for both collaboration and discovery based in chemistry, but also continues its rich history of support for chemistry in Texas," said Kathleen S. Matthews, dean of natural sciences at Rice University and chair of the oversight committee of the Gulf Coast Consortia. "The GCC community deeply appreciates the generous support of the Welch Foundation in this new and exciting endeavor in chemical genomics."

Established in 2006 with a $2.7 million gift from the John S. Dunn Foundation, the John S. Dunn Gulf Coast Consortium for Chemical Genomics gives academic investigators at GCC institutions access to technologies and resources traditionally limited to the pharmaceutical industry, including sophisticated robotic screening systems and very large collections of compounds and reagents. "Chemical genomics" is an emerging field that combines high-throughput molecular screening techniques and the vast quantity of information generated by the mapping of all the genes present in humans and other organisms to give novel insights into biological systems and provide a new foundation for drug discovery.

"From the beginning we've had a very active interest in how best to design and create the molecules we put into our screens -- what some would call the 'chemical' part of chemical genomics," Davies said. "That's why we're so grateful to the Welch Foundation for this commitment to advancing computational and synthetic chemistry, which is going to enable large numbers of scientists to discover new molecules that will be potentially very useful in the treatment of diseases and the process of discovery in biological laboratories."/p>


Contact: Jim Kelly
University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston

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