There is no question that the time and cost to develop a new pharmaceutical drug is astounding. Cost estimates range anywhere from $1 billion to $2 billion for pharmaceutical companies to develop just one new drug, and the time to get it from the lab into clinics can be 10 to 12 years or more. To help overcome time and money obstacles, institutions across the nation have begun rethinking the approach to pharmaceutical creation. Rather than starting from scratch, it has become much more efficient – both in time and money – to repurpose drugs that have already been approved by the FDA, using them in different ways to treat diseases for which we may not already have effective therapies. The Texas A&M Health Science Center Institute of Biosciences and Technology (IBT) is leading the nation in this kind of pharmaceutical research by bringing together cutting-edge technology and great minds from a number of Texas-based institutions.

The John S. Dunn Gulf Coast Consortium for Chemical Genomics was organized in 2003 to bring together scientists across Texas with the aim of developing a multi-institutional academic drug discovery program. The consortium, led by the Texas A&M IBT, is comprised of researchers and scientists from several major universities and medical centers in Texas, including the University of Texas at Austin, Rice University, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Peter Davies sitting at robotic workstation of the high-throughput equipment

Peter Davies, Ph.D., M.D., at one of the IBT’s high speed robotic workstations

“Team science is becoming an increasingly important strategy in solving difficult scientific questions, particularly questions that have to do with human health and disease,” said Peter Davies, Ph.D., M.D., professor and director of the Center for Translational Cancer Research at the Texas A&M IBT and holder of the Margaret M. Alkek Endowed Chair. By crossing institutional boundaries, the program is able to bring together scientists with different perspectives in order to produce creative approaches to the complex business of curing human illness.

Now, 11 years after the program’s founding, it has gathered enough funding, people and technology to begin yielding very promising results. Between 50 and 60 different projects are run by the program each year, 20 of which are done at Texas A&M Health Science Center. Several findings have been published and some have entered clinical trials.

What makes the Gulf Coast Consortium unique is its use of state-of-the-art research technologies that enables researchers to faster and more efficiently study numerous diseases using cultured cell lines. The high throughput equipment – or the IN Cell Analyzer 6000 from GE Healthcare – which was acquired in 2012 through a Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) grant, allows scientists working with high speed robotic workstations to test between 10,000 and 20,000 different drug combinations each day. Working from a collection of 80,000 different chemicals and drugs that includes more than 2,000 drugs that have been approved by the FDA for use in man, the equipment enables them to identify different drug combinations or “cocktails” that can be used for addressing a number of health issues. The high content analysis is different from standard biochemical assays, where the data is a mean from all of the cells in a well and not the individual cells themselves. This means researchers can use the data from these studies to analyze a large number of parameters for each individual cell in the well of a plate.

Once a promising combination has been discovered in the test system, it moves into animal testing. If it continues to look promising in animal models, the drug combination is then explored by clinicians to determine if it is suitable for use in humans. The entire process can take between three and five years, a significantly shorter amount of time than the 10 to 12 years it currently takes to develop an entirely new drug.

“The technology drastically speeds up the process, but we couldn’t do this kind of work without the team we have put together,” Davies said. “We have highly skilled scientists who have done drug discovery research both in industry and academia, which is a very unusual and valuable combination of experience.”

Because it is based in an academic setting, the program is able to conduct drug discovery research in a variety of areas. The primary focus is on cancer, but it also looks at different neurologic and endocrine (hormone-related) diseases, as well as other diseases that may spur particular interest. The researchers come from any of the nine collaborating institutions and work in three separate screening labs: one at the Texas A&M IBT in Houston that uses the high throughput technology, one at MD Anderson that studies the effects of knocking-down different types of genes, and one at the University of Texas at Austin that uses a more chemistry-focused approach.

“This is an exciting new approach to discovering new therapies for a number of devastating diseases,” said Cheryl Walker, Ph.D., director of the Texas A&M IBT. “We are delighted to see the Texas A&M Health Science Center take the lead in this initiative and greatly value our partners at collaborating institutions across the Texas Medical Center. Together, there is no limit to the positive impact we can have on human health in the immediate future, and for generations to come.”

— Lindsey Hendrix

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