UNM Center for Molecular Discovery
Yang Wu, PhD, works in a lab at the University of New Mexico Center for Molecular Discovery.

The University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center has joined a national network of scientists on the leading edge of drug discovery and development in the fight against cancer, centered at the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research.

The Frederick National Lab, located in Frederick, Md. and sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, is managing the expansion of the Chemical Biology Consortium to 22 sites around the country with world-class expertise in high-throughput screening, structural biology, medicinal chemistry, compound profiling, cancer cell biology and animal models for oncology. The University of New Mexico received a $375,000 subcontract for infrastructure and project costs associated with its participation in the consortium.

The University of Mexico Health Sciences Center is one of seven dedicated centers that will support drug discovery projects throughout all stages and provide leadership to the consortium. The consortium will also include 15 specialized centers that will provide technologies to advance discovery projects at specific stages of development. The Chemical Biology Consortium is the discovery engine for the NCI Experimental Therapeutics (NExT) Program.

Through the NExT program, scientists nationwide may propose new project concepts for cancer therapies at any stage of discovery or development. Favoring those concepts that the private sector does not pursue, the NExT program refers the top projects to the Chemical Biology Consortium to conduct the scientific work and provides funding for that work.

“The NExT program consolidates programs in [drug] discovery, development and clinical trials,” says UNM's Larry Sklar, PhD. “It represents an integrated approach in cancer therapeutics.” The new Center of Excellence will help UNM to integrate its own drug development pipeline. “We’ve been asked to form the team which links clinical trials and discovery,” he says.

Sklar, who will direct the new Chemical Biology Consortium Center of Excellence at UNM, plays many roles at the UNM Health Sciences Center, which allows him to create and work on projects with far-reaching impact. A Distinguished Professor of Pathology, Sklar serves as director of the UNM Center for Molecular Discovery. He co-leads the Cancer Therapeutics Research Program at the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center. And he directs the Drug Rescue, Repurposing and Repositioning Network at the UNM Clinical and Translational Science Center. All of these centers within UNM HSC share methods, technologies and resources.

According to Sklar, the new center will provide expertise in animal modeling, a critical step toward human clinical trials. Sklar says the new center will study not only how well a new drug works but also how it works at the tissue, cellular and molecular levels. The center will use the subcontract funding to develop new methods and tools for these efforts and will also have access to the shared scientific resources within UNM HSC.  

The many connections between the centers and scientific resources at UNM, and Sklar’s involvement in several of them, put UNM in a unique position. “We have the capability of collaborating with other cancer centers through the Drug Rescue, Repurposing and Repositioning Network,” says Sklar. “Those cancer therapies [from the Drug Rescue, Repurposing and Repositioning Network] showing the greatest potential will be proposed to the NExT program for further investigation by our center.”

“This is a tremendous opportunity for UNM to move our advanced work in drug discovery into drug development and then clinical trials,” says Richard S. Larson, MD, PhD, UNM HSC executive vice chancellor and vice chancellor for research. “This relationship will enable us to advance our own early-stage molecular and basic research discoveries into clinical therapies. We can move our own therapeutic ideas through the full spectrum of discovery, from concept to commercialization.”

“This subcontract will help us to enhance drug discovery here in New Mexico,” says Cheryl Willman, MD, director and CEO of the UNM Cancer Center. “It ties well with our other efforts, including the Oncology Research Information Exchange Network, in which the UNM Cancer Center is a founding member. We look forward to building national and international pharmaceutical interfaces with the new Center that will help our cancer patients here.”