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University of Houston launches new institute to promote drug discovery research

UH has announced a new multi-disciplinary institute to promote drug discovery. Photo courtesy of UH

The University of Houston has introduced a new institute to its campus. The multi-disciplinary program includes both on-campus and citywide collaboration.

UH has established the Drug Discovery Institute in order to streamline and modernize drug discovery. In partnership with the Texas Medical Center, as well as other organizations, the DDI will tap into technology and innovation to advance modern medicine. The institute will collaborate with the UH colleges of Pharmacy, Natural Sciences and Mathematics and Cullen College of Engineering.

"Our new Drug Discovery Institute could not have been launched at a more appropriate juncture. With the frantic quest for effective drugs to counter the current and future viral infections, the broad and deep strength of the University of Houston is being brought to bear and will no doubt advance the development of innovative cures," says Amr Elnashai, vice president for research and technology transfer, in a press release.

The university currently has about 100 faculty members conducting drug discovery-related research, but, according to the release, these efforts have been fragmented. With DDI, UH hopes to bring these efforts together under one roof in order to promote synergistic research.

F. Lamar Pritchard, dean of the UH College of Pharmacy, has been advocating for the idea of a collaborative drug discovery research center for more than a decade

"The breadth of this initiative will establish the institute and the University among the national leaders in drug discovery and become one of the first to fully embrace AI into its academic drug discovery programs," Pritchard says in the release.

The new institute will be led by Ruiwen Zhang, Robert L. Boblitt Endowed Professor in Drug Discovery at the College of Pharmacy,. He will hold the position of director for two years, before the title rotates through the collaboration of colleges.

"Working together is critical, none of us can do this alone," Zhang says in the release. "In drug discovery, a chemist needs a biologist, a biologist needs a pharmacologist, and so on. We will build a platform and infrastructure, along with the necessary tools, to bring everyone together."

The facility will work to promote each of the school's expertise across many aspects of the drug discovery process — including high-throughput screening technologies, organ-on-chip models, biosensing and biofeedback, molecular modeling and more.

"Practicing team science is key to making innovative discoveries and we are eager to collaborate with faculty across the University to develop cutting-edge research and ultimately to find treatments and cures for disease," says Dan Wells, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, in the release.

Additionally, DDI will offer seed grants for interdependent drug-discovery projects and encourage collaboration and the sharing of data with experts around the world

"I foresee one day in the near future that we are able to create some of the strongest databases and artificial intelligence approaches to drug discovery," Pritchard says in the release. "Rather than having to screen millions of compounds to find one therapy, we may be able to narrow that down to 1,000 and really streamline the process."

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Dr. Peter Hotez and Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi have been recognized by Fast Company for their leadership in developing low-cost COVID vaccine. Photo courtesy of Texas Children's

This week, Fast Company announced its 14th annual list of Most Creative People in Business — and two notable Houstonians made the cut.

Dr. Peter Hotez and his fellow dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, were named among the list for “open sourcing a COVID-19 Vaccine for the rest of the world.” The list, which recognizes individuals making a cultural impact via bold achievements in their field, is made up of influential leaders in business.

Hotez and Bottazzi are also co-directors for the Texas Children's Hospital's Center for Vaccine Development -one of the most cutting-edge vaccine development centers in the world. For the past two decades it has acquired an international reputation as a non-profit Product Development Partnership (PDP), advancing vaccines for poverty-related neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) and emerging infectious diseases of pandemic importance. One of their most notable achievements is the development of a vaccine technology leading to CORBEVAX, a traditional, recombinant protein-based COVID-19 vaccine.

"It's an honor to be recognized not only for our team's scientific efforts to develop and test low cost-effective vaccines for global health, but also for innovation in sustainable financing that goes beyond the traditional pharma business model," says Hotez in a statement.

The technology was created and engineered by Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Development specifically to combat the worldwide problem of vaccine access and availability. Biological E Limited (BE) developed, produced and tested CORBEVAX in India where over 60 million children have been vaccinated so far.

Earlier this year, the doctors were nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for their research and vaccine development of the vaccine. Its low cost, ease of production and distribution, safety, and acceptance make it well suited for addressing global vaccine inequity.

"We appreciate the recognition of our efforts to begin the long road to 'decolonize' the vaccine development ecosystem and make it more equitable. We hope that CORBEVAX becomes one of a pipeline of new vaccines developed against many neglected and emerging infections that adversely affect global public health," says Bottazzi in the news release from Texas Children's.

Fast Company editors and writers research candidates for the list throughout the year, scouting every business sector, including technology, medicine, engineering, marketing, entertainment, design, and social good. You can see the complete list here

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