Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance

By Tara Hulen

MedWint13-ADDACurrently, the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance (ADDA) has 20 projects in its portfolio, each representing a promising, long-awaited solution for both patients and physicians. “All of the projects address an unmet medical need,” says Richard J. Whitley, M.D., ADDA director and the Loeb Eminent Scholar Chair in Pediatrics. “We don’t pursue a project unless it has a targeted application.”

UAB (through the School of Medicine, Comprehensive Cancer Center, and CCTS) and Southern Research formed the organization five years ago to facilitate drug discovery and development by connecting the resources and expertise in both institutions. Some of the initiatives now under way could lead to new drugs for Parkinson’s disease, cancer, and HIV, Whitley explains, and the ADDA is providing an “umbrella of services” to support the progress of each one.

Collaborating with the ADDA is a not-so-secret weapon that can improve the chances that a UAB research project will win initial grant funding from the NIH, other federal entities, or pharmaceutical companies for studies or trials, Whitley notes. And the ADDA’s successful track record “can lead to more federal grants and private research funding in the future,” he says. “That should translate into clinical benefits for patients down the road.”

The ADDA also provides researchers with crucial assistance—everything from identification of molecular targets and mapping of their three-dimensional structures to preclinical toxicology and analysis of a potential drug—to help the discovery and development process. Funding for pilot projects adds further momentum for promising compounds.

The ADDA’s impressive roster of drug innovations has drawn the attention of large pharmaceutical companies “to take on our technology and develop it for people,” Whitley says. One of his own independent program project grants could lead to a gene therapy to treat glioblastoma multiforme, a collection of malignant brain tumors. “We made a (herpes simplex) virus that expresses interleukin-12 and declared that as intellectual property,” Whitley says. The UAB Research Foundation filed for and was awarded a patent and “will probably sell the rights to a gene therapy company. That’s in the works. That would be an example of translation of science to people, and it should happen sooner rather than later.”

"By 2020, spin-off businesses and the commercialization of UAB research could have an impact of $1.5 billion to $2.8 billion on Alabama's economy."

—"The Economic Impact of UAB," Tripp Umbach, November 2010

Of course, UAB profits when it licenses its discoveries to pharmaceutical manufacturers or external commercial labs wanting to further their own research. “By declaring everything to the UAB Research Foundation, UAB doesn’t lose intellectual property associated with the findings,” Whitley says. Having a cross-institutional translational medicine team such as UAB’s makes that kind of licensing success more likely. “This is a slam dunk as far as I’m concerned,” Whitley says.

Universities with large research programs are becoming more active in forming entities that promote technologies to benefit the institutions, and UAB and SR are no exception, Whitley says. In some cases, discoveries spark private spin-off biotech companies that stay in Birmingham or the state. “Clearly this is going to have an impact on the community; we do expect spin-outs.”

But every other goal is secondary to advancing medicine, Whitley emphasizes. “For example, the herpes simplex virus that we made to treat glioblastoma multiforme could change the two-year survival rate of 5 percent,” he says. “The most important thing is that we’re addressing unmet needs.”