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The National Institutes of Health said it will spend about $280 million to fund a network of nine centers across the U.S. with the intention of speeding up the use of small molecule probes, which it says have become invaluable tools for exploring biologic processes and for developing new therapies for disease.

The Molecular Libraries Probe Production Centers Network funded at about $70 million annually over the four-year production phase is the second phase of a program that kicked off in 2004 as part of the Molecular Libraries and Imaging Initiative under NIH's Roadmap for Medical Research. Using assays solicited by NIH from the research community, the network will screen a library of more than 300,000 small molecules maintained in the program's Molecular Libraries Small Molecule Repository. The repository is located in San Francisco at Biofocus DPI, a drug discovery research company.

"This network marks a new era in academic and government research as NIH-funded scientists will have access to the tools for rapidly screening hundreds of thousands of small molecules against many novel biological assays at lower costs than previously possible," said Elias Zerhouni, MD, director of NIH. "The information generated by this network will be important to developing a greater understanding of biology and its complexity, while hopefully discovering novel approaches to therapies and prevention, especially for rare or neglected diseases."

The NIH says that as genomics research reveals more about the complexity of cell function, new approaches are needed to understand the details. Small-molecule probes can be minutely targeted to interact with one site of a cell's chemical machinery, thus providing information on a specific step in a cascade of cell functions, the organization said. In some cases, small molecules may have activity that gives them potential for eventual therapeutic as well as research use; or, they may identify targets in the cell for the design of future therapies.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Human Genome Research (NHGR) Institute will co-administer the network on behalf of NIH. Program funding will transition out of the Roadmap in years five and six, the NIH noted.

"Discoveries from genomics and proteomics have given us thousands of new proteins but little understanding of what many of them do in the cell," said Thomas Insel, MD, NIMH director. "This screening effort will identify small molecules that influence these newly discovered proteins, allowing us to understand how many of them function. And for proteins involved in disease states, today's small molecule could be tomorrow's medication."

"This collaborative effort will give academic and government researchers in the global research community robust chemical tools to understand the cellular mechanisms of disease and a much more vigorous way to identify useful biological targets," said NHGRI Acting Director, Alan Guttmacher, MD.

The nine institutions funded as part of the network include the Burnham Center for Chemical Genomics (La Jolla, California), John Reed, principal investigator; the Broad Institute Comprehensive Screening Center (Cambridge, Massachusetts), Stuart Schreiber, principal investigator; National Institutes of Health Chemical Genomics Center (Bethesda, Maryland), Christopher Austin, principal investigator; the Comprehensive Center for Chemical Probe Discovery and Optimization at Scripps (La Jolla, California), Hugh Rosen, principal investigator; Johns Hopkins Ion Channel Center (Baltimore), Min Li, principal investigator; Southern Research Specialized Biocontainment Screening Center (Birmingham, Alabama), Colleen Jonsson, principal investigator; the University of New Mexico Center for Molecular Discovery (Albuquerque, New Mexico), Larry Sklar, principal investigator; University of Kansas Specialized Chemistry Center (Lawrence, Kansas), Jeffrey Aube, principal investigator; and the Vanderbilt Specialized Chemistry Center for Accelerated Probe Development (Nashville), Craig Lindsley, principal investigator.

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