In the news / Drug Discovery

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An inflammatory protein may play a part against the spread of sexually transmitted genital herpes virus in the nervous system, a new study says. The findings could help lead to improved treatment of herpes, according to the researchers at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix.
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Dr. Louise Hecker, research lead for a College of Medicine – Tucson lab studying highly selective Nox4 small molecule inhibitors for the treatment of fibrotic disorders, was selected to receive the Innovator of the Year Award in the academia category at the annual Governor's Celebration of Innovation Awards.
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A group of UAHS researchers including BIO5 members Drs. Rick Schnellmann, Roberta Brinton, Todd Vanderah, Monica Kraft, Scott Boitano, Andrew Capaldi, Michael Worobey, Louise Hecker, and Julie Ledford participated in the “Discovering New Medicines in Arizona” one-day summit, hosted by the AZ Center for Drug Discovery and the UA Cancer Center. The event sought to highlight key areas of research that seek to treat diseases prevalent in Arizona while establishing collaborations that enable success for future research and discoveries.
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Leading experts including UA Pharmacology and Toxicology assistant professor and BIO5 member Dr. Jun Wang, say understanding how the influenza virus replicates inside the body helps researchers develop a wider range of antiviral drugs. After finding medication resistant mutations within multiple flu viruses, Dr. Wang and other research teams across the globe, are looking to develop new drugs to target them.
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Dr. Irving Kron, a BIO5 member, professor of surgery with the UA College of Medicine - Tucson, and senior associate vice president for UA Health Sciences, has been named the new contact principal investigator (PI) for the UA Health Sciences and Banner Health 'All of Us' research program and precision medicine initiative. In his new role, Dr. Kron will lead the multiple UA and Banner Health established PI leadership teams, which include a team led by fellow BIO5 member Dr. Eric Reiman.
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A team led by The BIO5 Institute's Roberta Diaz Brinton, PhD, director of the Center for Innovation in Brain Science, received the multi-million dollar grant from the National Institute on Aging. The five-year grant will fund a national multi-site Phase 2 clinical trial to determine the effectiveness of allopregnanalone, or allo, as a treatment for individuals with early-stage Alzheimer’s who carry the genetic risk factor for the disease. This award supports the goals of the National Alzheimer’s Project Act.
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A new study led by scientists at the UA has uncovered a potential new way to treat patients with ALS, a debilitating neurodegenerative disease. “The fact that we uncovered a compensatory mechanism surprised me,” says UA Molecular and Cellular Biology professor and BIO5 researcher Dr. Daniela Zarnescu.
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Funded by the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute at the National Institute of Health, Jacob Schwartz, Ph.D., professor at Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Arizona College of Science and researcher at The BIO5 Institute, has created a new drug treatment for a class of cancers. Schwartz’s primary focus is Ewing’s sarcoma, a childhood cancer that is driven by the proteins he and is students are investigating.
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It seems Valley Fever is spreading. Some of the increase may be explained by improved diagnosis, but other factors are also at work; including increased migration and visitation to the Southwest where coccidioidomycosis is endemic. The director of the Valley Fever Center for Excellence and BIO5 member Dr. John Galgiani, weighs in on the challenges and progress regarding the development of a vaccine for the disease.
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Most studies have shown correlations between the microbiome and the effectiveness of drugs, but a recent study is one of the first to dig into how these associations work. Better understanding the causal links in drug responses may mean scientists are able to do more with our gut microbes.  BIO5 faculty and UA College of Medicine-Phoenix associate professor Dr. Melissa Herbst-Kralovetz, thinks this may pave the way for doctors to choose the most effective drug for individual patients.
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Thrombocytopenia, or HIT, is a deficiency of blood platelets, the cells that help blood clot. A team of UA College of Medicine-Tucson researchers including Associate Vice President and Director of the Center for Biomedical Informatics and Biostatistics at UA Health Sciences, Dr. Yves Lussier, is working in support of a new grant with the aim to identify predictive and early biomarkers for HIT.
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Although rare, common medications – including azithromycin and ondansetron – can contribute to prolonged heart-recharging intervals, which may lead to serious complications and hospital stays. To address this problem, UA researchers including College of Medicine-Phoenix professor Dr. Raymond Woosley, work to implement alerts embedded in patients’ electronic health records to assist health-care providers in mitigating sudden cardiac death.
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Immunobiology associate professor at the UA College of Medicine-Tucson and BIO5 faculty Dr. Deepta Bhattacharya, studies how the body deals with damaged cells and protects against chronic health issues. Dr. Bhattacharya says key cells in our immune system can be made more efficient in keeping us safe from infectious diseases.
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Dr. Clara Curiel, clinical director of the SCI and leader of the UA Cancer Center cutaneous oncology team uses chemoprevention to slow, stop, or reverse the progression of skin cancer. Chemoprevention strategies can be employed at many points in time, starting when skin already has been damaged by UV radiation.
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BIO5's Dr. Roberta Diaz Brinton, an internationally recognized expert on Alzheimer’s disease and Inaugural Director of the Center for Innovation in Brain Science at UAHS, has received a five-year, $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health Institute on Aging. With the funding, Brinton will develop a unique training program to cultivate a diverse pool of highly trained scientists from diverse fields who can effectively address the nation’s Alzheimer’s research needs.
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BIO5 member Dr. Michael Johnson, Assistant Professor of Immunobiology in the UA College of Medicine – Tucson, is using a five-year, $1.9 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to explore whether copper could be the cornerstone for the next generation of antibiotics.
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The Flinn Foundation awarded a $1.5 million grant to UA College of Medicine’s Division of Clinical Data Analytics and Decision Support (CDADS). “The Flinn Foundation grant is the result of several years of planning by the UA College of Medicine-Phoenix to incorporate precision medicine into the curriculum and into faculty research programs,” said BIO5 member Dr. Raymond Woosley, Co-Director of the Division of Clinical Data Analytics and Decision Support
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The Arizona Emergency Medicine Research Center is leading a study aimed at increasing inhaler use among elementary school children. "The question isn't 'Does the medicine work?' It is ‘Does using this approach to delivering the medication work?’ It is about how best to help at-risk children miss less school days and have less hospital admission," said BIO5 Institute's Dr. Kurt Denninghoff, Associate Director of the of Center.
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The cost to society of childhood asthma is more than AIDS and tuberculosis combined, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The numbers are “staggering,” says BIO5's Dr. Donata Vercelli, UA Professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine and the Associate Director of the Asthma and Airway Disease Research Center. Vercelli and collaborators have conducted groundbreaking research with children from Amish and Hutterite communities to find out what in the environment protects the Amish children from contracting asthma.
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BIO5 member Dr. Roger Miesfeld, a UA Distinguished Professor and Head of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and researchers in his lab, have discovered a protein that prevents mosquitoes from hatching, opening the possibility of developing new drugs that could act as birth control for mosquito populations.
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For this month’s blog, we had the opportunity to sit down with Michael Kuhns, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Immunobiology in the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson. Kuhns, who is also a member of the BIO5 Institute, began his research journey training with 2018 Nobel Prize winner James Allison at UC Berkeley, where he studied the role of CTLA-4 in regulating CD4 T cell responses.
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Scientists have pinpointed a molecule that accelerates the evolution of drug-resistant microbes. Now they're trying to find a way to block it. "All steps forward are good, and I think this is a great one," said Dr. Michael Johnson, BIO5 member and Assistant Professor of Immunobiology at the UA College of Medicine—Tucson.
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BIO5 member Dr. Kirsten Limesand, Professor of Nutritional Sciences, is devoted to finding a cure for post-chemoradiation dry mouth. Research from Limesand's lab has led to a clinical trial that is being conducted by the UA Cancer Center, as well as a published a paper that was recognized with the APSselect award, given to the best articles in physiological research.
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A $4.4 million grant from the Department of Defense will help BIO5 Institute's Dr. Louise Hecker and her team, including fellow BIO5 member and medicinal chemist Dr. Vijay Gokhale, test two drug candidates for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis – a deadly disease with no cure.
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Drug interactions can pose a serious risk to patients when they are not identified and addressed. That is why a team of UA researchers, including BIO5's Dr. Vignesh Subbian, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Department of Systems & Industrial Engineering, are developing a drug interaction knowledge database, combined with clinically validated algorithms, which is expected to increase the specificity of warnings concerning dangerous drug combinations.
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Recent legislation introduced by Rep. McCarthy is being hailed by valley fever advocates and researchers as a huge step forward in combating the disease, which is on the rise locally. “I think (the bill) is appropriately drawing attention to a problem which is every bit as intense as polio was before its vaccine for the susceptible populations,” said BIO5's Dr. John Galgiani, director of the UA Valley Fever Center for Excellence.
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A UA research team is trying to solve the mystery behind amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease. BIO5's molecular biologist Dr. Daniela Zarnescu is using a catalog of genetic information to sift through a list of drugs that could provide clues to successfully battle the disease.
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UA Venture Capital Fund LLC, an early stage venture capital firm aimed at supporting UA technology spinoffs has made its first three investments— two of which are companies founded by BIO5 members. Codelucida, co-founded by BIO5's Dr. Bane Vasic, and Regulonix, founded by BIO5 members Dr. Rajesh Khanna and Dr. Vijay Gokhale.
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The current treatment costs for snake bites are astronomical, according to an analysis completed by Dr. Leslie Boyer, BIO5 member and Director of the VIPER Institute at the UA, which helps to develop new anti-venom serums. She found that for a vial of anti-venom priced at $14,000 in the US, it cost just $14 to make – equivalent to 0.1% of the final cost.
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UA has licensed two inventions developed in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry to startup MCR Therapeutics. The inventors, Dr. Minying Cai and Dr. Victor J. Hruby, both BIO5 members, developed a melanin-producing compound for a systemic approach to preventing skin damage.
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A new blood test, the IsoPSA, showed promise in trials to more accurately diagnose prostate cancer. Dr. Richard J. Ablin, BIO5 researcher, member of the Arizona Cancer Center, and Professor at the UA College of Medicine—Tucson, performed research in hopes of finding an antigen specific to the prostate for use in a blood test for prostate cancer screening, which led to the discovery of PSA in 1970.
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Researchers with the UA College of Medicine— Tucson, including BIO5 members Dr. Todd Vanderah and Dr. Tally Largent-Milnes, have received grants totaling $1.3 million from the Arizona Biomedical Research Commission, in support of their efforts to develop non-addictive medications to block chronic pain, the major culprit in the opioid epidemic responsible for the deaths of 64,000 Americans.
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A UA research team, including senior author Dr. Wolfgang Peti and Dr. Rebecca Page, both members of the BIO5 Institute, is the first group of scientists to figure out the full pathway for activating a protein kinase. "Kinases are one of the major cancer drug targets," said Dr. Peti. "If you know how a kinase works, you can definitely better design your drugs against it."
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Dr. Leslie V. Boyer, BIO5 member and founding Director of the UA's Venom Immunochemistry, Pharmacology and Emergency Response (VIPER) Institute, gives tips on how to best treat snake bites in preparation for summer.
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Avery Therapeutics, a startup company co-founded by BIO5 member and cardiologist at UA Sarver Heart Center, Dr. Steven Goldman, is most known for developing a tissue-engineered heart graft. Avery Therapeutics was recently honored during the "Buzz of Bio" awards as a winner in two separate categories.
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"Seeing some of the ideas from the Khanna lab start to turn into products that may be able to benefit patients soon, I've been motivated to pursue a physician-scientist career," said UA neuroscience senior Lindsey Chew, about working in the lab of BIO5 member, Dr. Rajesh Khanna. Chew's entry in the Posters on the Hill exhibit at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., explains the new pain therapy.
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Steven Schwartz, BIO5 member and professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Applied Mathematics, became one of UA's five new regents professors after the Arizona Board of Regents voted to approve his appointment during their April 6th meeting on campus.
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How do we cure the opioid epidemic? We create non-opioid related pain treatments—says the UA, 2014 Flinn Scholar who will be presenting her research in Washington D.C. She has been doing laboratory work under the BIO5 Institute's Dr. Rajesh Khanna.
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Stefano Guerra, BIO5 member and associate professor in the UA Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine, has received a $3.6 million, five-year grant to study the protein CC16, a biomarker of injury to epithelial cells that line the lungs and are believed to be a protective mediator in the airway inflammatory process.
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Tech Launch Arizona has been working with the UA to increase commercialization of technology since it was launched five years ago. One example is UA drug startup Regulonix, which is developing a new class of non-opioid painkillers. Regulonix was co-founded by BIO5 member Rajesh Khanna, May Khanna, assistant professor of pharmacology and Rajesh’s spouse; and BIO5's Vijay Gokhale, Ph.D.
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A coalition of researchers, including BIO5's Dr. Janko Nikolich-Zugich and several others from the UA, have received a $10 million grant over five years to conduct research on the human immune system and aging.
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Dr. Leslie Boyer, BIO5 member and director of UA VIPER Institute, had a hand in fellow UA researcher's recent discovery of a treatment therapy that can buy more time for snakebite victims.
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A UA Cancer Center and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences research team is conducting a series of studies investigating how genistein, a component of soy foods, might suppress the development of breast cancer. The team is led by BIO5's Dr. Donato F. Romagnolo.
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Researchers in the UA College of Medicine have invented a new class of non-opioid compounds to treat pain. The UA has licensed the compounds to startup Regulonix, co-founded by Vijay Gokhale a research scientist at the BIO5 Institute.

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Arizona Spotlight looks at the current addiction crisis beyond opioids, through the words of people who struggle to overcome their issues. Dr. Todd Vanderah, BIO5 member and professor in the Department of Pharmacology at UA, who studies changes to brain chemistry that occur in response to addiction, is featured.
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The BIO5 Institute is home to The KEYS Research Internship, a program that facilitates research internships for 378 Arizona teens in the areas of in bioscience, biomedicine, engineering, environmental health or biostatistics and contribute to ongoing research projects across The University of Arizona.
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Tucson-based drug startup Cancer Prevention Pharmaceuticals Inc. has announced the launch of a Phase 2 clinical trial at Vanderbilt University Medical Center to test the company’s flagship drug candidate for preventing gastric cancer. The company was co-founded by BIO5 Institute member and Cancer Center member Dr. Eugene Gerner.
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The University of Arizona’s department of chemistry and biochemistry has long been a research powerhouse and is now a leading producer of intellectual property. Dr. Roger Miesfeld, head of the department and member of the BIO5 Institute, attributes their commercial successes to the entrepreneurial drive of his faculty.
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Pain is the most common and most expensive disease in the United States and throughout the world. The lab of BIO5's Dr. Hruby, has spent the last 10 years experimenting with new strategies to deal with this problem, focusing on effective therapies without the toxicity that is present in pain medications on the market today.
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To combat treatment-resistant flu viruses, UA College of Pharmacy and BIO5 Institute researchers are developing new and effective treatments. Dr. Jun Wang and his team have been working to combat the evolution of multi drug-resistant flu viruses.