Medicinal Chemistry Research Centre

July 02, 2009

It takes about a billion dollars and ten years to bring a drug to market. That's why ordinary university researchers with new drug concepts don't stand a chance. A biologist might propose a drug based on the elucidation of a particular metabolic pathway, or a mental health worker might observe an off-label effect of an existing drug. Where do they go if they want to pursue the development of their new drug ideas?

SFU now has a new Drug Research Institute (DRI), part of a regional Centre for Drug Research and Development (CDRD) that offers a full array of services to university faculty, students and staff who wish to create new drugs. The DRI is part of a network of facilities at five other institutions including UBC, UVic, UNBC and two provincial health authorities. CDRD CEO Natalie Dakers says, "Unlike other such initiatives, the BC CDRD is a true regional resource." According to Dakers, it was founding director SFU VP Research Dr. Mario Pinto who conceived the model of spreading CDRD around six different locations in BC. SFU's centre focuses on Medicinal Chemistry and is located in Discovery Park. The CDRD also has a pharmacology DRI at the BC Cancer Agency, as well as a commercialization group at UBC, which focuses on business development and market assessment for new drugs in the CDRD pipeline.

Medicinal chemistry starts with the identification of chemical entities that could become drugs. Then begins a long process of refinement. Thousands of minute changes to the chemical composition of a drug candidate followed by countless tests can yield compounds optimized for biological activity, yet minimized for side effects and toxicity. Drug candidates must also be enhanced for long shelf life, as well as longer exposure time in the body before they are broken down (metabolized). Similarly, when the body digests them they must degrade into harmless products that are easily tolerated and excreted.

"Medicinal Chemistry is the key for making an interesting observation or active compound into a real therapeutic that has the properties of safety and consistent efficacy expected in the world of modern medicine," says Robert Young, SFU Professor of Chemistry and co-director of the CDRD Division of Medicinal Chemistry. According to Young, the DRI will also be an excellent venue for research. “It will be the CDRD's centre for synthetic scale-up, which will allow the initial safety evaluations for drug approval to go forward,” says Young. SFU's DRI analytical facilities will also be used to address metabolic issues--how and where a drug is chemically broken down by the body--which can make or break a promising new drug.

"The goal of CDRD is to work with academics to advance discoveries, then to understand the business opportunity and do something about it," says Dakers who began at CDRD in 2005.

The new Medicinal Chemistry facility at SFU is exciting enough to have attracted one of our own alumni back from the US. Newly hired lab Director Peter Chua grew up in Maple Ridge and graduated from SFU in 1992. After obtaining a PhD in Montreal, and working in the drug industry in the US for almost a decade, he has returned to head up the new institute. He says, "A scientist can come to the CDRD with a potential drug project. Once approved, the scientist usually pays only for consumables such as chemicals and solvents. The CDRD provides expertise, manpower and instrumentation." At the end, when a promising drug candidate has been found (see graphic) the commercialization arm of CDRD gets first dibs to negotiate with the scientist for intellectual property rights.

Chua left a higher-paying job at a drug company in San Diego to take the new position here at SFU. "It's partly to give back to the province," says Chua, but he was also attracted by the prospect of working with Bob Young and others in the CDRD. Young was VP of Medicinal Chemistry at Merck Frosst Canada in Montreal before he came to SFU in 2007. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 2004 for his leadership in the discovery and commercialization of new medications for allergies and inflammatory diseases, such as asthma and arthritis. "These are great people to work with, and we can help contribute to the development of new industries in BC after all the lumber and fish are gone," says Chua.

Funding for the SFU facility came in large part from a Western Economic Diversification grant. CDRD arose thanks to successful grants from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, B.C. Knowledge Development Fund, the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, Western Economic Diversification, the B.C. Ministry of Health, and the National Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research. Some funding also comes from drug companies such as Merck Frosst and Pfizer. Profit from commercially successful drugs will go back into CDRD to make it self-sustaining. 

The new Drug Research Institute at SFU will support the pharmaceutical industry in BC in many ways. Students and staff working at the institute will learn the skills required to form new drug companies in the province. The institute can also assist existing local companies. According to Jason Crawford, Deputy Head of medicinal chemistry at CDRD, a key problem that often results in the demise of an otherwise successful drug company is a tendency to focus on one profitable product to the exclusion of new research. "After you have a hit drug, you tend to put all your money into clinical testing, sales, and development because shareholders demand quick profits. Research can be neglected. If a competitor brings out a better or cheaper drug, you may have nothing in the pipeline." The CDRD is an efficient way for the local pharmaceutical industry to keep new drug research active, while focusing on their core drug sales and marketing. SFU's new DRI for medicinal chemistry is a key component for this.

Natalie Dakers is grateful to Mario Pinto who was instrumental in getting the CDRD started. She says, "Now we have new infrastructure at SFU, but from day one it was seen as a regional facility. It's kind of nice to have labs out at SFU versus everything being at UBC."

No comments yet