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Sept. 15, 2008
Contact: Kevin Boatright, Office of Research and Graduate Studies, (785) 864-7240.

KUís $20 million grant is stateís largest; university among medicinal chemistry elite

Jeff Aubé, professor of medicinal chemistry

LAWRENCE — Thanks to a new six-year, $20.2 million research award from the National Institutes of Health, the University of Kansas is joining a high-level network of institutions in the search for molecules that can fight disease and advance human health.

The grant is the largest federal research award ever made in Kansas. It will establish a Specialized Chemistry Center on KU’s west campus in Lawrence for a research team led by Jeff Aubé, professor of medicinal chemistry.

“What makes me excited about this is it puts KU right in the middle of some of the most forward-thinking biomedical research in the country,” Aubé said.

The award to KU is part of a new NIH Molecular Libraries Probe Production Centers Network. The network will be established at nine institutions throughout the United States, including the NIH Chemical Genomics Center, the Comprehensive Center for Chemical Probe Discovery and Optimization at Scripps, the Burnham Center for Chemical Genomics and the Broad Institute Comprehensive Screening Center at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. KU joins Vanderbilt University as the only institutions awarded a Specialized Chemistry Center.

“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,” said Elias Zerhouni, director of NIH.

The network is a key element of the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, a multi-year initiative to address gaps in fundamental knowledge, develop new tools and technologies, and approach complex problems in innovative ways.

“The NIH is linking up a number of outstanding investigators throughout the country in order to focus their efforts on human health problems that can’t be solved in just one lab,” said Aubé. “Within the network, chemists and biologists will be working together to develop ways of understanding basic human biology. They’ll also figure out how to translate that understanding into real impacts on human health.”

In a process called high-throughput screening, thousands of different molecules are tested to determine their potential effect on human biology, such as inhibiting an enzyme or changing a cell’s behavior. The goal is to identify hits, or molecules that show some promise. These hits then undergo additional study at centers like the one at KU.

Aubé compares the process to panning for gold.

“It’s like you’re out prospecting, looking for a nugget of gold hidden in a pile of gravel and sand,” he said. “Back when, prospectors literally used a screen to filter away all the bad stuff. What was left might be a little gold nugget. In the lab, we’d call that a hit.”

Once hits are pinpointed, KU’s Specialized Chemistry Center will produce chemical probes — molecules based on hits that are engineered to be more efficient in their desired function.
“A hit will typically be pretty good at what you want it to do,” Aubé said. “Our job is to make it great at what we want it to do. For the probe, that’s basically taking the gold nugget and turning it into something really wonderful — like a gold ring.”

Already having essential people and facilities gave KU’s proposal an edge in the competition for funding. KU’s Center for Research provided seed money to begin hiring needed researchers earlier this year. The new center will be housed in the third phase of the Structural Biology Center, which opened in June.

“This has truly been a great year for KU,” said Chancellor Robert Hemenway. “Today’s announcement is one more achievement on a long list, one more reason for everyone to take pride in this university. Research is fundamental to our academic mission. A national award of this magnitude confirms KU’s ability to compete with the very best in the lab, the classroom and everywhere else.”

Aubé said the new center will involve more than 20 people at KU, including faculty members, support scientists and postdoctoral researchers. It will build on work already being done at the Structural Biology Center in KU’s NIH-funded Center of Excellence in Chemical Methodologies and Library Development, which Aubé directs and which collaborates with other screening groups throughout the country, including KU’s High-Throughput Screening Lab.

Under the new award, KU expects to add 15 to 20 new grant-funded positions, in addition to expanding its compound purification systems and purchasing other specialized equipment.

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