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Greg Thatcher and Pavel Petukhov receive NIH CADET grant

UICentre to create a molecule to control sleep-disorder breathing

Millions of Americans suffering from sleep-disordered breathing may awaken more refreshed should a new drug be discovered by researchers collaborating at three Chicago academic institutions.

The UICentre, together with scientists at the University of Chicago and IITRI (Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute), have received a $8.5 million federal Centers for Advanced Diagnostics and Experimental Therapeutics in Lung Diseases (CADET) grant to develop a new treatment for sleep-disordered breathing from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The UICentre (Collaborative Engagement in Novel Therapeutic Research and Enterprise) is an alliance of UIC scientists across the Colleges of Pharmacy, Medicine, and Liberal Arts & Sciences whose mission is to discover novel small molecules that can be used as potential drug leads to treat illnesses ranging from Ebola to Alzheimer’s disease.

UIC would not have been able to secure a drug discovery and development project of this magnitude had it not been for the creation of the UICentre, said Gregory Thatcher, professor of medicinal chemistry at UIC and center director.

“The majority of research leading to novel therapeutics is still performed by large pharmaceutical companies,” Thatcher said. “However, the increased financial burden of developing new drugs has them looking for academic partners to help mitigate the risk of the early discovery process.”

Billions of dollars has been spent by the NIH over the last several decades on biological research, and while discoveries have been made, few individual academic laboratories are capable of performing the multi-disciplinary research needed to translate discoveries from the lab to the development of novel therapeutics that will impact human health, Thatcher said.

“NIH has recognized this translational ‘gap’, and in response is funding initiatives such as the CADET grant,” he said. “In the current drug discovery climate, there is a clear opportunity for academic labs to secure funding from NIH programs, to present themselves as potential partners with pharmaceutical companies, and to become an economic driver in society.”

Sleep-disordered breathing encompasses several chronic conditions – sleep apnea, central apnea and periodic breathing – in which breathing is interrupted many times throughout the night – and presents a severe economic burden to society. Along with daytime sleepiness, slow reflexes, poor concentration and an increased risk of accidents, sleep apnea also leads to such serious health problems as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and weight gain. There are no drugs available to treat this condition.

After discovering a specific biological target to control sleep-disorder breathing, University of Chicago physiologist Nanduri Prabhakar called upon Thatcher and the UICentre to create a molecule that can specifically hit this target. A team of 10 faculty scientists at UIC will design these molecules to alleviate apnea, with essential animal efficacy studies to be carried out at the University of Chicago.

A third Chicago institution, IITRI, led by Dave McCormick, is to collaborate on drug development leading to clinical trials.