UNM Cancer Center Selected as One of Nine High-Power National Molecular Discovery Centers

Posted on September 2nd, 2008 by

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has selected the University of New Mexico as one of only nine national molecular discovery centers in the U.S. with a six-year, $15.5 million grant.

Part of the NIH Roadmap Molecular Libraries Initiative, the UNM Center for Molecular Discovery will operate as a biological screening center effecting and monitoring the interactions of small molecules and proteins that can regulate biological processes.

Among other things, the center will function as a discovery center aimed at identifying small molecules that can be used as chemical probes and as leads for drug discoveries. These capabilities have tremendous potential for economic development in New Mexico. Discoveries at the molecular level can have pharmaceutical, clinical and research applications.

“We have a great team that we’ve been building for years,” remarks Larry Sklar, Ph.D., UNM Regents Professor and discovery center director. “We’ve even developed and patented some of our own technology to dramatically accelerate the process of molecular discovery.”

Sklar, and colleague Bruce Edwards, Ph.D., developed a new apparatus and process that perform cell analyses nearly 30 times faster than previously. This new technology should significantly speed drug discovery, while lowering the costs of drug development and clinical diagnoses.

“The UNM Center for Molecular Discovery has been in pilot phase for about three years,” adds Richard Larson, M.D., Ph.D., Vice President for Translational Research and Senior Associate Dean for Research at UNM’s School of Medicine. “Now we can move into the production phase. This is another vehicle by which UNM continues to aggressively pursue the NIH Roadmap that emphasizes bench-to-bedside approaches to health sciences discovery.”

The NIH Molecular Libraries Program offers public sector biomedical researchers access to the large-scale screening capacity necessary to identify small molecules that can be optimized as chemical probes to study the functions of genes, cells, and biochemical pathways. This will lead to new ways to explore the functions of genes and signaling pathways in health and disease, according to the NIH.

Three key technological advances drive NIH’s effort to build small molecule libraries. First, the successful completion of the Human Genome Project has provided an enormous cache of human biology to be studied and potential drug targets to be discovered.

Second, developments in chemistry have given researchers in the public sector the ability to rapidly and efficiently synthesize large numbers of related molecules, a capability previously available only to researchers in pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

Third, advances in robotic technology and informatics now allow scientists to screen hundreds of thousands of compounds in a single day, an orders of magnitude greater capacity than was available a decade ago.

The NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, launched in 2004, is a series of initiatives designed to address fundamental knowledge gaps, develop transformative tools and technologies, and/or foster innovative approaches to complex problems.

Funded through the NIH Common Fund, these programs cut across the missions of individual NIH Institutes and Centers (ICs) and are intended to accelerate the translation of research to improvements in public health. The Office of Portfolio Analysis and Strategic Initiatives (OPASI) in the NIH Office of the Director, in collaboration with all NIH ICs, oversees programs funded by the Common Fund. Additional information about the NIH Roadmap and Common Fund can be found at http://nihroadmap.nih.gov. Additional information about OPASI can be found at (http://opasi.nih.gov).

“The advent of a Molecular Library Probe Production Center at UNM is a tremendous technological boon for New Mexico,” offers UNM Executive Vice President for Health Sciences Paul Roth, M.D. “Vital partnerships with the WM Keck Foundation, Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico State University, New Mexico Tech and others will strengthen our integrated approach to practical research with world-class facilities and personnel.”

For more information on the UNM Health Sciences Center, visit http://hsc.unm.edu/.

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