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Drug discovery symposium maps new frontiers, collaborations

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November 09, 2012

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More than 300 stu­dents, fac­ulty and industry researchers from more than 80 insti­tu­tions con­vened at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity on Tuesday for a day­long sym­po­sium on the future of drug dis­covery and devel­op­ment with an eye toward treating debil­i­tating diseases.

The event took place in the Curry Stu­dent Center and was co-​​hosted by Terry Fulmer, dean of the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences and Murray Gibson, dean of the Col­lege of Sci­ence. "Our dis­tin­guished speakers really gave us a lens into the future which is so exciting," said Fulmer. Gibson praised the symposium's col­lab­o­ra­tive nature, saying, "We were delighted to have out­standing external leaders describe the cut­ting edge of drug dis­covery, in the con­text of our leading efforts here at North­eastern, and inform our future plans."

Graham Jones, chair of Northeastern's depart­ment of chem­istry and chem­istry biology, explained that a common theme that emerged throughout the day was the need for "col­lab­o­ra­tion and inte­gra­tion to pre­vent dupli­ca­tion of effort among devel­opers, and to ensure com­pa­nies invest cap­ital in the most promising areas."

In one of three keynote speeches, pio­neering chemist George White­sides noted the remark­able fact that he was "here, in front of you, alive." Despite being exposed to thou­sands of harmful pathogens on a reg­ular basis, he said, our life expectancy out­paces that of our ances­tors by decades. "We are selected to be phe­nom­e­nally robust as com­plex sys­tems," said White­sides, a Har­vard Uni­ver­sity pro­fessor whose work has fun­da­men­tally changed the par­a­digm of sci­ence in var­ious ways.

World-​​renowned sys­tems biol­o­gist Leroy Hood, whose ground-​​breaking work paved the way for the Human Genome Project, agreed: "It's clear that one of the enor­mous chal­lenges in studying dis­ease is the incred­ible com­plexity of living organ­isms," said Hood, who served as the fea­tured speaker on Monday at Northeastern's Pro­files in Inno­va­tion Pres­i­den­tial Speaker Series.

The pro­gram of 11 speakers, which included researchers from industry as well as acad­emia, tackled these and other chal­lenges facing the field with a morning ses­sion chaired by Man­soor Amiji, chair of the depart­ment of phar­ma­ceu­tical sci­ences, and an after­noon ses­sion chaired by Jones. Isabel Cunha-​​Vasconcelo, the director of cor­po­rate & foun­da­tion rela­tions and research advance­ment in the Bouve Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, helped orga­nize the event, which cov­ered a variety of topics including an overview on the state of cystic fibrosis therapy research and a dis­cus­sion of new antiviral com­pounds through the story of Darunavir, a front­line AIDS/​HIV drug.

The third keynote address, given by Carnegie Mellon bio­med­ical engi­neering pro­fessor Alan J. Rus­sell, focused on the cur­rent state of regen­er­a­tive med­i­cine. "The holy grail is really drug induced regen­er­a­tion," he said, indi­cating that the field will ulti­mately move away from more inva­sive processes that involve whole cell injections.

The event, which also fea­tured an expo­si­tion of Northeastern's myriad con­tri­bu­tions in the field, "was a striking suc­cess," said Fulmer. "New inves­ti­gator to inves­ti­gator con­tacts were estab­lished and poten­tial new col­lab­o­ra­tions mapped out."

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