New center aims to fill void in drug development

Center for Drug Discovery will focus on unmet needs in public health

pills and bottles on a table
Washington University has formed a new center dedicated to drug discovery, working to fill a void left by industry consolidation. (Photo: Thinkstock)

The state of drug discovery is dire. A few bright spots in new medicines exist for cancer and rare diseases; however, a crisis in drug development is approaching for illnesses that have major implications for public health, according to data from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and elsewhere.

To help address this problem, Washington University in St. Louis has formed a new Center for Drug Discovery, with the idea that academic institutions must step in and contribute to research and development of new therapeutics that industry has largely abandoned because of market pressures.

“Despite knowing more about disease than we ever have before, the country’s drug development infrastructure is less able to develop new medicines than in the past,” said Michael S. Kinch, associate vice chancellor and director of the Center for Research Innovation and Biotechnology. “The university is host to some of the best science in the world, and the Center for Drug Discovery could help fill the gaps in research and development and have a major impact on public health.”

Kinch and John A. Cooper, MD, PhD, professor and head of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, will serve as co-directors of the new center. David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine; and Holden Thorp, provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, will provide oversight and support.

Consolidation has caused the pharmaceutical industry largely to dismantle itself in recent years, according to research from Washington University’s Center for Research Innovation and Biotechnology (CRIB). To help fill the research and development gap left by industry, the new center’s goal is to help guide and underwrite drug discovery efforts to support Washington University researchers as they navigate the early stages of the drug development process.

“The new center is most interested in fostering projects that address unmet needs in human health,” Cooper said. “We have a panel of internal and external experts, including faculty, investors and industry people, who will help make recommendations about funding and support for the most promising projects. But whether the best route is a new startup or a partnership with an existing company, we want to emphasize that the projects will belong to the faculty members. They are the drivers.”

Funding to establish the Center for Drug Discovery comes from the School of Medicine and the provost’s office. In addition, funding for individual drug discovery projects will come from multiple partnerships across campus, including collaborations with the School of Medicine’s Institute of Clinical and Translational Sciences (ICTS), the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation & Entrepreneurship and Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

One major route of funding that the new center has tapped into is the Bear Cub Challenge, a program intended to help bench scientists bridge the gap to becoming entrepreneurs. To make this opportunity more widely available, the Bear Cub program recently moved from a yearly call for applications to every four months.

The new center will take advantage of existing infrastructure and programs already in place at the university so that the funding can go directly to the research projects.

“We would like to take these dollars and deploy them into the projects themselves, rather than build new infrastructure,” Cooper said. “Our goal is to be lean and efficient in identifying the most promising projects and the critical paths to mature projects to a point where they attract interest from external partners or investors.”

Data from CRIB suggest large pharmaceutical companies buy out the smaller ones, often as soon as the smaller companies achieve their first FDA approvals.  More concerning, CRIB analyses show that the large companies are dismantling the newly acquired research and development infrastructure.

Because of the enormous amounts of time and money required to develop new drugs, market forces have driven industry away from research and development, according to Kinch. The new center’s leaders said the goal is to help fill the R&D gap by drawing upon the innovation that is already happening at Washington University and that could help drive new drug discovery.

For more information about the Center for Drug Discovery, including its resources and funding opportunities, visit the website,

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient-care institutions in the nation, currently ranked sixth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.
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