Drug Discovery Colloquium Sparks Friendly Debate

By Ben Boulden

The first question from the audience may have been the most direct one: What is the most promising field? Where is the money or the most progress to be made?

“The most profitable area is rare diseases,” said panel member Pravin Chaturverdi, Ph.D., CEO, Oceanyx Pharmaceuticals. “The reason is if there are only 400 patients for a disease then you only need 20 for a clinical trial and then the FDA approves it. It’s considered a breakthrough therapy. But what are you doing for the others? We’ve discovered 177 different types of cancer. Cancer is now going on the rare disease route.”

Chaturverdi explained that because of much more specific, genomic data about different cancers than in the past, many specific cancers can now be more narrowly categorized as rare, effectively qualifying them for an expedited development process.

Other members of the panel besides Chaturverdi were Cesar Compadre, Ph.D., professor in the UAMS College of Pharmacy Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences; James Sumpter, Ph.D., managing director at Caerul LLC; Darin Jones, Ph.D., associate professor in the UAMS College of Pharmacy, drug discovery;  and Robert Doerksen, Ph.D., research associate professor in the Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Mississippi. Shraddha Thakkar, Ph.D., a principal investigator at the National Center for Toxicological Research in Pine Bluff, moderated the panel discussion.

“What’s wrong with this picture?” Compadre said while pointing at the panel. “There are one, two, three, four, five men here on this panel. Half of mankind is women and there are five men here. There are almost no new drugs introduced for women’s health in the last 20 years. We have to focus on what is needed. That’s the challenge for all of us. There’s big room to work in for women’s health. What we have to get out of the picture may not be what the pharmaceutical industry thinks is the most profitable. It should be what is most important.”

From the first time the UAMS College of Pharmacy organized and hosted the colloquium in 2014 to today, the gathering has grown richer in content and continued to promote the dialogue between students and experts interested in the processes of drug discovery and development.

Nine keynote and featured speakers over the three days of the colloquium covered topics ranging from new drugs from natural products and dietary supplements to drug safety and toxicity. William Slikker, Ph.D., director of NCTR, and Weida Tong, Ph.D., director of the Bioinformatics Division at NCTR, presented keynote lectures at the conference.

“The novelty, veracity and robustness of the data are very important for us,” said Charturverdi. “There is no us-versus-them with the academic side. It is all us. My challenge to you in academia is why aren’t you doing something different rather than chasing the same tail of something that already has passed.”

The audience laughed when Compadre with a smile addressed fellow panelist Robert Doerksen and said, “Robert, we have to defend ourselves!”

About 90 people attended the colloquium and listened to presentations and discussions.

About 90 people attended the colloquium and listened to presentations and discussions.

Compadre went on to give examples of UAMS College of Pharmacy faculty who have invented new processes and drugs that have gone to market and generated revenue for the university.

Doerksen said one of the central missions in drug discovery is not only to find and develop new medications but to educate graduate students and research fellows. If everybody involved is also learning in the process, than those efforts that fail to result in a marketable product are not complete failures.

From the audience, Philip Breen, associate professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Science, added to the discussion. He said academic researchers can afford to take time and search for things like new antibiotics in unexpected places that are too “far out on a limb” for big pharmaceutical companies to consider.

“It might look at first like knowledge for knowledge sake, but then you might find you have an antibiotic that’s curing 15 different diseases through a new mechanism,” Breen said.

Thakkar, the panel moderator, encouraged researchers to always keep in mind the potential for toxicity when developing new drugs, and to do everything they can to develop safer drugs.

“After all FDA’s NCTR is just a few miles form UAMS,” she said.

Peter Crooks, Ph.D., D.Sc., left, and Cesar Compadre, Ph.D., stop to talk during a break at the colloquium.

Peter Crooks, Ph.D., D.Sc., left, and Cesar Compadre, Ph.D., stop to talk during a break at the colloquium.

Organized by the UAMS student chapter of the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists, the colloquium June 13-15 drew about 90 attendees. Many of them were there to listen and ask questions of the panel. The student chapter was formed in 2013, and it already has received national recognition for its leadership efforts. Skylar Connor, a Ph.D. student in the UAMS/UALR Bioinformatics program, is the current president of the chapter.

Connor encouraged UAMS students to get involved in the chapter’s activities.

“Being part of the chapter leadership has been a great experience and it is also a lot fun,” he said.

Attendees came to the colloquium from across a multi-state region that includes Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee and from as far away as University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada.

Many of the students who attended the event displayed 30 posters describing and summarizing different research projects in which they were engaged, and some also made spoken presentations of their work and findings in competition. Research fellows and students winning first place awards were:

Oral Presentation:

  • Student 1st – Mary “Allie” Davis (University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences)
  • Student 2nd – Sahar Alghamdi (The university of Tennessee health sciences center)
  • Student 3rd – Asmita Poudel (University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada)
  • Student 3rd – Ujwani Nukala (University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences/University Arkansas Little Rock)
  • Student 3rd – Samuel Kakrabe (University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences/University Arkansas Little Rock)
  • Post Doctoral 1st – Tanmay Bera (FDA National Center for Toxicological Research)


Poster Presentation:

  • Student 1st – Naga Rajiv Lakkaniga (University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences)
  • Student 2nd – Debasmita Saha (University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences)
  • Student 3rd – Karsten Amexcua (University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences)
  • Post Doctoral 1st – Alicja Urbaniak (University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences)
  • Post Doctoral 2nd – Venumadhav Janganati (University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences)