Interdisciplinary Institute for Drug Resistance created

New institute will develop strategies for combating common problem

By Mark Shelton

UMass Medical School Communications

November 01, 2012

A new interdisciplinary cross-campus institute will lead the way toward increasing the number of effective therapeutic drugs and strategies to combat drug resistance in quickly evolving diseases, according to Terence R. Flotte, MD, the Celia and Isaac Haidak Professor of Medicine and executive deputy chancellor, provost and dean of the School of Medicine. The Institute for Drug Resistance (IDR) will be co-directed by three distinguished scientists, including Celia Schiffer, PhD, professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology and director of the UMass Center for AIDS Research.

“While much research in the field has focused on understanding drug resistance in a specific disease, the IDR will explore the thesis that there are important parallels in drug resistance mechanisms and pathways among quickly evolving diseases. Understanding these parallels could lead to novel solutions in drug design, development and delivery, in a field where success can mean extended life for both the therapeutic agents and the patients in need,” said Dr. Flotte.

Quickly evolving diseases, whether caused by infectious pathogens or cancer, represent a leading cause of illness and death. Yet they are often the most difficult and frustrating to treat because under the selective pressure of therapy, drug resistances quickly arise. For many expensive new drugs, resistance emerges shortly after clinical trials are complete, potentially limiting the drug’s longevity and effectiveness. For the patients being treated with these drugs, developing a resistance can be the difference between life and death.

The IDR mission is to foster collaborative, cross-disease research for the purpose of accelerating the development of resilient therapeutic agents such that drug resistance is avoided. The IDR’s plan recognizes the essential interdisciplinary nature of drug resistance research and the need for forums and collaboration opportunities through which researchers share results and insights on common problems.

The vision for the IDR came from Dr. Schiffer, who has long advocated for an interdisciplinary approach to avoid drug resistance. Her laboratory studies the molecular basis for drug resistance in viruses, including HIV, hepatitis C and influenza. “Dr. Schiffer’s strong belief is that drug design and therapeutic strategies must incorporate evolution to effectively treat many viral, bacterial and fungal infections and cancers,” noted Flotte.

The other two co-directors of IDR are Margaret Riley, PhD, professor of biology at UMass Amherst and president of the Massachusetts Academy of Sciences, and Tien T. Bui, the founder of Biozen Consulting.

Since 2009, Schiffer has collaborated with Dr. Riley on a Science and Technology Grant from the University of Massachusetts that supported the planning and development of the IDR. Riley is a leader in the field of antibiotic resistance, whose work includes the development of a narrow spectrum therapeutic alternative for urinary tract infections, and a therapeutic alternative for lung infections associated with cystic fibrosis. Riley is also the chief scientific officer at Origin Antimicrobials, a biopharmaceutical company meeting the challenge of antimicrobial resistance by applying ecological and evolutionary theory to drug design.

Bui is an advisor for the National Institutes of Health-Commercial Assistance Program (NIH-CAP), where she mentors numerous early stage companies on strategic commercial issues and investor relations. She has 18 years of experience in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry, with extensive experience in all aspects of drug and technology commercialization. For seven years she was vice president of sales and marketing and vice president of medical affairs and education for virology and oncology at Monogram Biosciences, where she started Monogram’s first specialty sales force in HIV. Before joining Monogram, she served in various commercial, health policy and strategic product development roles at DuPont and DuPont-Merck Pharmaceuticals from 1990 to 2000.

In the last two years, the IDR has established a conference and workshop series to encourage multidisciplinary inquiry and networking opportunities to facilitate collaboration. More than 150 scientists and researchers have taken advantage of these opportunities, including 75 from the UMass system. In the past four months, the IDR also initiated and held the first Gordon Conference in Drug Resistance and an American Academy of Microbiology Colloquium called “Designing Drugs that Last.”

“The IDR is a unique organization at a unique moment in time. The Institute has taken important steps to demonstrate a proof of concept as an organization that can facilitate new and important collaborations that yield insights into the mechanisms and pathways by which drug resistance occurs. In time, these insights may lead to the development of long-lasting, effective therapeutics for some of the most problematic diseases,” said Flotte.

Related link on UMassMedNow:
Expert’s Corner: Celia Schiffer on drug resistance