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Discovery in the Academy

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When it comes to high-throughput screening, you probably think of research at a large pharmaceutical company. Pharmas spend countless hours and untold sums of money searching for drugs and drug targets, refining the process, and searching some more. At the same time, academia tends to ignore the further-downstream possibilities of high-throughput screening, focusing on more basic biological interests. But not the University of Kansas. The school is carving out a place for itself on the academic side of drug discovery, particularly to fill unmet clinical needs such as rare cancers.

"My vision of high-throughput screening at KU is to say that we are one source for drug discovery," says Rathnam Chaguturu, director of the university's high-throughput screening center. "Our aim is to be the number one academic generator of oncology anti-cancer targets."

KU and Chaguturu have bargained that academia has a place in the high-throughput screening and drug discovery business. Chaguturu says that universities can combine the best aspects of large pharmaceutical companies, biotech companies, and academia. "Big pharma goes to big ticket items, so to speak," says Chaguturu, who came to KU in the fall after working at Dow Chemical, FMC Corp, and Sierra Sciences. While biotechs take more risks than the large drug companies, they sometimes lack the knowledgebase to handle certain targets, particularly in overlooked diseases. That's where academia comes in, Chaguturu says.

"There are so many areas that big pharma or biotech is not looking into but that academia is very well positioned to look at," he says. For him and KU, he says, "It's a societal obligation in the way I look at it, because we are funded mostly by the state and federal grants."

Chaguturu has his work cut out for him in trying to re-establish KU's high-throughput screening facility. The center was established in 2000 as part of a COBRE grant that set up an experimental cancer therapeutics center. But then the screening center languished — in fact, Chaguturu had 73 projects waiting for him when he arrived at KU. Today the facility aims to reposition itself as the university's medical school and pharmacy school seek a cancer center designation from the NIH.

To pursue that designation, KU wants to stand out from the crowd by enhancing and strengthening its discovery efforts. "We are not just doing research for the sake of research, but we are targeting towards drug discovery as well," says Chaguturu, who adds that high-throughout screening is "a critical and important role for the drug discovery effort at KU."

Though he and his team are seriously tracking cancer targets, Chaguturu says he is also working with researchers who focus on infectious diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, or pain management. One project is even centered on biodiversity, with screening samples from South America and southern Africa to uncover possible therapeutics.

For those academics who are not quite comfortable with high-throughput screening — Chaguturu says some scientists consider screening to be anti-intellectual — he provides support for both developing the assay and in performing purity checks. Chaguturu says basic researchers are coming around to appreciate the role this particular technology, and drug discovery in general, has in academia.

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