May 24, 2012

Academic-industry partnership forms for drug development

UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

Professor of Pharmaceutics Jashvant Unadkat has started a new venture at the UW School of Pharmacy.The UW Research Affiliates Program on Transporters is a cooperative effort between the school  and pharmaceutical research companies AstraZeneca, Genentech and Merck. Researchers across the four institutions are collaborating on research that will facilitate drug development.

The goals of the UW Research Affiliates Program on Transporters are twofold. First, it will provide quantitative information on drug transporters. The data  would help better predict the fate of new drugs early in development and thereby expedite the movement of promising drugs into clinical trials. Second, the findings would enhance the collective knowledge about personalized medicine by better predicting the potential for drug-drug interactions and by showing how an individual’s genetics might influence the processing of  certain drugs.

A nucleoside transporter is expressed at the plasma and the mitochondrial membrane in cells.

A nucleoside transporter is expressed at the plasma and the mitochondrial membrane in cells.

The program’s researchers hope to achieve these aims by studying and measuring the drug transporters produced in various human tissues and cells. Transporters are membrane proteins in tissues. They help the body absorb, distribute, metabolize and excrete drugs. Such transporters exist throughout the body, including in the liver, kidney, red blood cells and the brain.

For more than a decade, Unadkat’s lab has studied drug transporters in the disposition, efficacy and toxicity of drugs such as those used in the treatment of hepatitis C and HIV infection. Before translating findings from this in-vitro research (done in the test tube) to in-vivo studies (those conducted in the body), Unadkat realized additional research was required. He wanted to know more about the amount and type of transporters present in human tissues.

“Recognizing this gap in knowledge, our lab embarked on setting up a program a few years ago to quantify the level of expression of transporters in human tissues,” said Unadkat.

To do so, he set up a collaboration with Yurong Lai, a Pfizer scientist and a former postdoctoral fellow of the Unadkat Lab.Their novel approach links mass spectrometry (an analytical technique that identifies chemicals by their mass and charge) with liquid chromatography (an analytical technique for separating ions or molecules that are dissolved in a solvent). Seed funding for this work came from Pfizer.

Over time, Unadkat wanted to find a way to share collective expertise and resources with others in the industry who were conducting similar research. He began discussions with scientists from across the pharmaceutical research industry. With the help of two UW offices that help facilitate academia-industry partnerships and help secure support for sponsored collaborations — the UW Center for Commercialization and the UW Office of Sponsored Programs — UW Research Affiliates Program on Transporters came into being late last year with the three major research companies on board. Additional discussions are under way with other companies that have expressed interest in joining the initiative.

This two-part human brain scan shows the transporter-mediated distribution of a drug in the presence and absence of a transporter inhibitor.

This two-part human brain scan shows the transporter-mediated distribution of a drug in the presence and absence of a transporter inhibitor.

Through the initiative, Unadkat, lead scientist Bhagwat Prasad and other scientists and graduate students in the Unadkat Lab are measuring expression of transporters in human tissues and in other kinds of cells and tissues sent from pharmaceutical companies. Members of the program will communicate their results and next steps through regular online and in-person meetings and through online access to the data generated by the Unadkat Lab. This kind of collaboration will mark a first for the companies..

“Such multi-company collaboration is rare because pharmaceutical companies are competitors,” said Unadkat. “Astrazeneca, Genentech and Merck were willing to collaborate and fund UWRAPT because the research is not proprietary.”

In fact, the information that comes from the program’s research will benefit the School of Pharmacy and all the companies involved in drug-development research. All data generated by the program will be shared with all three companies and eventually be published.

What’s more, the UW Research Affiliates Program on Transporters partnership will help the School of Pharmacy train future scientists in pharmaceutical research. The program is intended to be a multi-year, public-private collaborative research venture.

Ultimately, Unadkat and his colleagues hope that by improving understanding about the quantity and types of transporters expressed in human tissues, they will advance the collective knowledge about how medicines are processed by the body. In turn, this will help health care providers prevent drug interactions and understand how genetics affects the way individuals process medications.