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Profs trying to revolutionize drug discovery process

June 22, 2009

Two chemistry professors at IUPUI are laboring to create the McDonald's of research laboratories—a model that's low-cost and can spread around the world.

Bill Scott and Martin O'Donnell have started a project called Distributed Drug Discovery, trying to lure in researchers and students at universities around the globe to collaborate over the Internet to discover drugs.

The idea is to make it cheaper and faster to find drugs for diseases that plague poor countries and that big drug companies don't focus on: tuberculosis, leprosy, leshmaniasis, dengue fever and Chagas disease, to name a few.

And if researchers at drug and biotech companies get involved, the effort might even produce commercialized products to treat other diseases.

"People can coalesce around a common problem across barriers," said Scott, a chemist who worked at Eli Lilly and Co. for 27 years.

Scott and O'Donnell created simple sets of chemicals and test tubes that undergraduate students now use to synthesize new compounds. This work is taking place at IUPUI, the University of Indianapolis, and universities in Spain, Poland and Russia.

They are trying to make compounds dreamed up by a computer program operated by Scott and O'Donnell. The program generated millions of potential compounds that could be made from chemicals in their test tube sets. Scott and O'Donnell are also soliciting ideas from researchers at other schools who use similar computational models to imagine new compounds for drug testing.

Once the students have determined that a dreamed-up compound can be manufactured simply, then Scott and O'Donnell add that compound to their virtual drug catalogue. They are making the catalogue available online to any researcher.

In return, they are asking that researchers worldwide invent or suggest simple tests that could be used to see if a compound is effective at binding to the proteins involved in malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases.

If a drug compound passes through all these steps with encouraging results, it would be ready for more formalized trials in animals and possibly humans.

"My belief is, if we publicize that, the World Health Organization, the Gates Foundation, all sorts of organizations are going to say, 'We would be happy to fund the next stages in this process,'" Scott said.

But the project has a long way to go. Scott and O'Donnell's next steps are to get funding to pay someone to build a Web site for their Distributed Drug Discovery project. They also need to work out who will own the rights to any drugs their discovery network discovers.

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