Bad bugs. No drugs.
UNMC's College of Pharmacy is working to fight bugs that cause disease.
Posted: Fri, Jun 3, 2011
Here's a story meant to scare you:
A few years back, farmers in central China came down with a strange sickness that included vomiting, diarrhea and severely high fevers. Their organs started to fail, rapidly. About a third of those farmers died.
The illness spread to six other regions of China, proving fatal in 12 percent of cases.
At first, researchers blamed it on bacteria transmitted by ticks. They soon realized they were wrong. Though it was from ticks, the sickness – which they named Severe Fever – actually was caused by a virus that was previously unknown.
Here's another scary story:
In 2008, about 170,000 people in the United States died from new, emerging and neglected infectious diseases such as H1N1 influenza virus, SARS and H5N1 avian influenza virus. (Emerging infections include newly identified strains of the AIDS virus, malaria, tuberculosis and MRSA, which is a drug-resistant staph infection.) Yet the Food and Drug Administration approved no new antibacterial drugs in 2008 and since 1998, it's approved only 12 new antibacterial drugs.
"Bad bugs. No drugs."
That's how Courtney Fletcher, dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center's College of Pharmacy, might describe this trend to you if you're not a scientist, to get your brain wrapped around this major health problem – one that could affect everyone.
"People need to care about this," he says. "Sure, a disease like malaria is not a major problem in the United States. But the borders that separate us as a society aren't very far anymore. We all travel. Someone from Omaha or Lincoln or Scottsbluff could go to visit a part of the world where there's malaria, or a person infected with malaria could come here. Microorganisms can cross borders pretty easily.
"Also, I think we need to care because we're part of a larger family. The numbers are staggering – one child dies every 30 to 45 seconds from malaria."
Though a bad bug can be highly lethal, the usual length of therapy for such an infection is short, often just seven or 14 days. So major pharmaceutical companies are targeting less of their research on those illnesses and more of it on finding drugs that help chronic, lifelong illnesses like high cholesterol or "lifestyle" drugs like those to help erectile dysfunction.
That's why researchers in academic settings like UNMC have taken a bigger role.
Here's a story that's meant to give you hope:
Fletcher and his fellow researchers at UNMC's College of Pharmacy are on the front lines of this global battle. They're working to discover new drugs and new drug delivery systems to fight these bad bugs.
And their successes in drug discovery have made a difference.
Jonathan Vennerstrom, a pharmaceutical chemist and professor, for example, has helped lead the discovery of two drugs to treat malaria. Both are now in clinical trials. His newest drug may be a single-dose drug to cure malaria. The drug is showing promising results in human trials. It could be one of the biggest breakthroughs in the fight against malaria in 80 years.
Most antimalarial drugs must be taken three times a day. A single dose like this new drug would be more convenient and more affordable and would help ensure patients get the right amount of medicine.
"Think about this newest antimalarial drug Jonathon developed – if it really is a one-dose cure, while the world needs it it's not going to be a big money-maker for a pharmaceutical company.
"Yet the potential for it is huge and the need for it is staggering."
The discovery is so significant Bill Gates mentioned it in a speech to the United Nations in 2008.
Fletcher lists other pharmacy professors in the college such as Matt Kelso, who's trying to discover ways to treat traumatic brain injury; and Tanya Bronich, who's looking for a way to deliver cancer drugs to brain tumors.
"We aren't just going after neglected infectious diseases, but other human health problems where there are significant unmet needs," Fletcher says.
The college's researchers also have developed leads for tuberculosis, food-borne infections and antidotes for toxins.
Fletcher himself is a major force in HIV research. He focuses on how drugs to treat HIV/AIDS work with people. Because of the work of Fletcher and his team about a decade ago, the FDA approved two important HIV drugs for children at almost the same time it was approved for use in adults.
Again this year, like the last two years, the College of Pharmacy ranks in the top 10 nationally among 110 pharmacy schools in terms of research dollars per faculty member.
"I think the big message is that the College of Pharmacy and the faculty are actively involved in drug discovery and drug development to improve human health," Fletcher says.
And they're educating students who help solve the drug problems – about 60 percent of Nebraska pharmacists were trained at UNMC.
But the school has hit a ceiling, literally. Its current home on campus, which was built in the mid-1970s, is inadequate for the type of research being done today.
This comes at a time when the college has the ability to do more work, the dean says, and when there's clearly no shortage of medical need out there for new drugs to solve new problems.
One recent day, the dean gave a tour of the building to Bob Batt, co-chairman of the college's campaign committee that's raising money to build a new facility for the college. On the second floor of the current building, Batt had to step over the legs of students sitting in the hallway. Their classroom was too small for the work they were doing. They were the overflow.
"I think I chuckled a bit and remarked to him pretty quickly, ‘Bob, this isn't staged just for you. This is the day-to-day reality.'"
Here's a story that just kills Fletcher:
Last fall, a young researcher Fletcher wanted to hire came to visit UNMC. He was a chemist working on ways to treat new infectious diseases, a rising star in the field. He would have come with money from major grants. He would have come with fresh ideas. But there simply wasn't any space to put him.
The college lost him.
"That's not acceptable to us," Fletcher says. "If we're going to lose a faculty member, let's lose them because someone offered to pay them more money, not because we couldn't meet their needs for research space."
Batt, executive vice president of Omaha's Nebraska Furniture Mart, is passionate about getting the word out. He knows people would be passionate about the college, too, if they knew the exciting research happening inside its walls.
"They have so many people waiting that they can employ if we get them a building," Batt says. "So that's good for the med center. That's good for Omaha. That's good for Nebraska. It's good for everybody."
That's why raising money to build a new College of Pharmacy building is one of UNMC's top priorities for the Campaign for Nebraska.
An anonymous donor gave the lead gift for it. They hope to break ground later this year. But there's still more money needed to be raised before construction can begin.
The new facility would include a Center for Drug Discovery, making UNMC the only academic medical center in the country to have a drug discovery program focused on infectious diseases.
The new building and the new center would take the College of Pharmacy into the future.
"The school's got a good story to tell," Fletcher says. "I don't think we've told it well in the past. We're trying to do a better job of that, connect with the public, connect with supporters, and let them know what we do. Most of us are going to take a drug at some point in our life. When a drug is needed, the public expects that one is actually available and on the market, and it will be safe, effective and affordable. These are the very problems we work on, and that we educate our students to solve – and we are good at it.
"We're something that Nebraska should be proud of."