Bridging the Drug Discovery Gap

By Kristen A. Schmitt

When Marsha and Neal Morien of Arizona decided to invest in the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Center for Drug Design and Innovation, they knew it could benefit not only the state of Nebraska, but possibly the world. That’s because the newly opened center has a critical goal: to help shift the paradigm of drug discovery and development.

“We live in an environment where there are many opportunities to give, but instead of making a small impact, we wanted to put our funds toward a larger opportunity that can make a difference,” Marsha Morien said. The Moriens’ gift commitment is being matched by funds available through an estate gift made by College of Pharmacy alumnus Joe Williams and his wife, Millie.

The current system of drug discovery and development is ripe for innovation. Large pharmaceutical companies employ some of the world’s best minds in drug development, but to maintain the complex infrastructure needed to bring a billion-dollar-plus drug through FDA approval, these companies tend to focus on blockbuster drugs. Within that paradigm, it may make little financial sense to develop drugs such as antibiotics, which are designed to be taken for a short period of time, or drugs that are otherwise unlikely to generate significant sales, such as so-called “orphan” drugs. These drugs, however, may be critically needed by hundreds of thousands of people or, in the case of antibiotics, millions.

UNO’s close proximity to the University of Nebraska Medical Center makes it an essential player in tackling this challenge by providing foundational STEM classes and a path to a health professions education.

Keith Olsen, Pharm.D., is the Joseph D. Williams Endowed Dean of UNMC's College of Pharmacy.

This center will be a critical resource for the design of new therapeutics that provide new hope for Nebraskans facing challenging medical diagnoses.

Corey Hopkins, Ph.D., professor of pharmaceutical sciences in the UNMC College of Pharmacy and the center’s inaugural director, said the Moriens’ gift couldn’t have come at a better time.

“It shows that the vision we had for the center is supported,” he said. “We have people behind it and this gift will benefit UNMC, the College of Pharmacy and Nebraska.”

An important first step in drug discovery and development is seed funding for novel research, which the Moriens’ gift will help provide. Seed funding allows researchers to complete their study or conduct another series of experiments to move their projects along  — either closer to translation into treatments or to obtaining a patent.

“The hardest part with grant funding is you first have to have results,”  Hopkins said. “A gift like this one from Marsha and Neal can act as the start of a new project rather than [researchers having to] rely on federal funding. It can help jump-start new and promising ideas.”

Along with allowing more opportunity to obtain federal grants, seed funding also can help the center  — and its researchers  — gain industry interest, which can lead to potential partnerships and funding for additional research.

Keith Olsen, Pharm.D., who serves as the Joseph D. Williams Endowed Dean of UNMC’s College of Pharmacy, said the center not only will lay the foundation for seminal contributions from UNMC’s research faculty as well as the wider University of Nebraska System, but it also will put the university on par with other Big Ten institutions.

“Most importantly,” Olsen said, “this center will be a critical resource for the design of new therapeutics that provide new hope for Nebraskans facing challenging medical diagnoses.”