What IF we could treat all diseases?

Away from its bustling cities, Vietnam is a bucolic paradise of shimmering gold rice paddies, cone-hatted farmers and quietly grazing water buffalo. But its natural beauty belies a hard truth of rural life: When villagers get sick, their first recourse is often a concrete infirmary nestled in the jungle, with a garden of medicinal plants, a couple of metal beds and a handful of basic commercial medicines.

And when patients are infected with malaria, even when top-of-the-line drugs are available, too often the parasites are resistant, leaving the patient to his or her own natural defenses.

Hope for millions in Vietnam and beyond could lie in a new drug co-developed by Philip Low, the Ralph C. Corley Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and the Presidential Scholar for Drug Discovery. Through a partnership with the University of Hue in Vietnam, Low is overseeing a clinical trial in the country, one of five in the Greater Mekong region to have reported treatment-resistant cases.

Low, who was also the founding director of the Purdue Institute for Drug Discovery, was among the speakers at the institute’s fifth annual Drug Discovery Symposium in September.
The conference sought to answer two questions: “What if we could treat all diseases?” and “What if we could bring more treatments to people in need?” Along with keynote presentations by three world-renowned researchers, the event included sessions by institute members on their groundbreaking research. Besides Low, other members presenting included:

  • Bumsoo Han, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, who is developing technology that simulates tumors in order to test the effectiveness of different drugs on patient-derived cells. Down the road, the T-MOC (tumor-microenvironment-on-chip) system he co-developed might be used to grow tumor cells from individual patients, which could then be tested against different drugs. “There are 20 to 30 different types of chemotherapeutic drugs for breast cancer, and it is very difficult for doctors to choose effective ones,” Han said. “I hope our platform will be able to screen down those choices to improve the treatment outcome as well as patients’ quality of life.”
  • Daniel Flaherty, assistant professor of medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology, who is seeking alternatives to opioids for chronic pain. Opioid overdoses around the world have been on the rise in recent years, in part because of their increased use in managing chronic non-cancer pain. Currently, Flaherty is targeting the AC1 protein, a technique that has shown some promise for reducing not only pain but also opioid dependence.
  • Elsje Pienaar, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, who is exploring computational approaches to the development of new drugs for infectious diseases. Each year, millions around the world die from illnesses such as lower respiratory tract infections, diarrheal diseases, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Despite the availability of drugs for many of these conditions, rising numbers of drug-resistant infections and the high cost of combination therapies complicate treatment. Pienaar is using data to better predict drug efficacy, optimize treatment and identify new drug targets, all in the context of complex host-pathogen-drug interactions.
  • Mohamed Seleem, professor and section head of microbiology in the Department of Comparative Pathobiology, who received a $1.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in 2017 to study whether two FDA-approved drugs can be repurposed to treat life-threatening drug-resistant bacteria. “There is an urgent need for antimicrobial drugs to treat superficial and invasive infections because of the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” he said.

Several compounds developed by Purdue researchers, often in collaboration with pharmaceutical companies or federal agencies, are already being used in the marketplace to treat chronic and acute illness. Dozens of others are undergoing clinical trials in more than 1,600 health facilities around the world, including the clinics deep in the Vietnamese jungle near the border with Laos, where Low’s malaria drug is being trialed.

Low reported at the symposium that after testing the drug alone, his team is now trying it out in combination with other anti-malarial agents. So far, results look promising. “We are very excited about the potential efficacy of our drug,” said Low, who also has several other drugs in the pipeline.

The Purdue Institute for Drug Discovery (PIDD) is one of six major interdisciplinary life science research centers harnessing the university’s unique strengths to improve the quality of life for people around the globe. Supported by strong infrastructure from nano-, atomic- and molecular-scale analysis to live cell and whole animal advanced imaging, PIID researchers collaborate with clinical partners around the world on innovative drug candidates for cancer; neurological disorders and trauma; immunology, inflammation and infectious diseases; and other diseases. Zhong-Yin Zhang, head of the Department of Medicinal Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology, a Distinguished Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, and the Robert C. and Charlotte P. Anderson Chair in Pharmacology, directs the institute.


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