Michigan Drug Discovery awards grants for five new projects


Michigan Drug Discovery has awarded early-stage funding for three new drug discovery projects by faculty across the University of Michigan.

The program also will provide project management support and mentoring assistance for two early-stage cancer projects funded by the Rogel Cancer Center.

These projects are aimed at discovering new drugs for treating cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease, and creating new non-opioid painkillers.

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“The potential therapeutic impact of these latest projects highlights the caliber of biosciences research at the university and the strength of our translational research program,” said MDD Director Vincent Groppi. “U-M is committed to adding to the universe of biomedical knowledge to improve the lives of patients.”

MDD supports faculty from across the university in developing promising biomedical research toward clinical translation. The grants provide researchers with access to the technology and expertise of core laboratories at the university, helping to advance promising projects to the point they can attract more substantial funding from federal agencies, foundations, and industry partners.

Together, MDD and its affiliated cores provide mentorship and help guide researchers through the many stages of the drug discovery process — from validation of a drug target to optimizing drug safety and effectiveness for human clinical trials.

This marks the 11th round of funding since the center launched in 2012 as a partnership between several campus units to provide mentorship and early-stage support for drug discovery projects.

Including these latest five projects, the center has supported 55 projects with an investment of nearly $2.1 million. In turn, these projects have gone on to secure more than $17 million in federal grants and other support. Several projects have received patent protection or have been licensed by a commercial partner.

The MDD grants — up to $50,000 each — primarily support work in four university core laboratories: the Center for Chemical Genomics and Center for Structural Biology at the Life Sciences Institute, and the Pharmacokinetics Core and Vahlteich Medicinal Chemistry Core at the College of Pharmacy.

For the next round of funding, the Natural Products Discovery Core, located in the Life Sciences Institute, has been added as a fifth core.

The latest grants were awarded to:

• Andy Alt, assistant research scientist in pharmacology, Medical School, to chemically optimize potential drug leads that produce pain relief by amplifying the effects of the body’s natural painkillers. Early data suggest that by magnifying the effects of endogenous pain-fighting peptides, this potential new kind of drug may provide pain relief similar to morphine or oxycodone but without the abuse liability or dangerous side effect profile associated with opioid pain drugs.

• Lennane Michel Espinoza-Fonseca, assistant professor of internal medicine, Medical School, to design and synthesize new molecules for the treatment of heart failure. Espinoz-Fonesca’s novel compounds directly treat heart failure by targeting molecular defects within the heart cells, as compared to current drug therapies which only target peripheral symptoms such as blood pressure.

• David Fox, professor of internal medicine and chief of the Division of Rheumatology, Medical School, to optimize and test compounds for the treatment of inflammatory diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and cancer. Fox will “repurpose” three compounds known to inhibit the inflammatory pathway in these diseases, and after optimization, test their efficacy and potency. The goal is to develop a deeper understanding of the biological mechanisms of inflammatory diseases.

The early-stage cancer grants were awarded to:

• Ryoma “Puck” Ohi, associate professor of cell and developmental biology, Medical School, and affiliate faculty member at the Life Sciences Institute, to optimize and develop novel small molecules that inhibit proteins critical for the movement of DNA during cell division. These molecules could inhibit uncontrolled cell division, leading to tumor growth, and serve as anti-cancer agents.

• Yatrik Shah, professor of internal medicine, and molecular and integrative physiology, Medical School, to screen for and test small molecules that inhibit tumor growth in colorectal cancers. In particular, the research will target the dysregulation of a growth factor integral in the development of colorectal cancers.

MDD is funded by the Office of the Provost, the College of Pharmacy, the Life Sciences Institute, the Rogel Cancer Center and, at the Medical School, the Department of Internal Medicine, Department of Pathology and the Endowment for the Basic Sciences.

MDD’s executive committee includes senior researchers and administrators from the College of Pharmacy, the Rogel Cancer Center, the Medical School, and the Life Sciences Institute.


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