Partnering with Pharma: Who Knows Where It Will Lead?

I feel like a kid in a candy store.

I have been studying proteins for 20 years with the contributions and participation of students, post-doctoral fellows and research scientists from my lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We principally study how proteins use information entering cells to control their movement relative to other cells. It is very basic research. So how, you might ask, did I find myself working with one of the largest pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs to treat skin cancer? It turns out that the proteins we study are abnormally active in the majority of skin cancers and I convinced GSK that these proteins would make great drug targets to treat this disease. 

John Sondek, PhD, is a professor in the departments of Pharmacology and Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He was one of eight academic scientists from the US and Canada selected in the 2013 Discovery Fast Track Challenge. His winning proposal was to study a novel approach for new treatments for metastatic epithelial cancers. Today as we announce the 2014 winners, John reflects on his experience over the past year. 


John Sondek, PhD, is a professor in the departments of Pharmacology and Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He was one of eight academic scientists from the US and Canada selected in the 2013 Discovery Fast Track Challenge. His winning proposal was to study a novel approach for new treatments for metastatic epithelial cancers. Today as we announce the 2014 winners, John reflects on his experience over the past year. 

I am working with GSK through their Discovery Fast Track Challenge, a program that builds partnerships with academic labs to develop lead compounds for drug discovery. I was one of the winners in last years challenge and Ive been astounded by the resources GSK has brought to bear on this problem. Theyve screened about two million compounds in six months. It took my lab almost three years to screen nearly one-tenth that number and we ran out of compounds to test. GSK even did us one better by using a completely different technology for a second screen. The number of people at GSK who have worked on this project is larger than my entire laboratory, yet its been a wonderfully collaborative experience. I could feel a genuine desire for an equal partnership from the very start.

Work on my project is still underway. The screen is still in progress and, right now, were down to roughly 1,000 compounds that show promise as leads for drug development. Im thrilled at the prospect of identifying inhibitors that we can use to study proteins in individual cells. Even more fascinating would be having the opportunity to take this research to the next level and join the effort to develop a compound that could treat cancer and, ultimately, save lives.

Lets always remember the importance of basic research; we never know where it will take us. That’s why I am so excited to see the list of this year’s winners in the US:

  • Dr. John Burnett Jr., Mayo Clinic, and Dr. Sibohan Malany, Sanford-Burnham Institute for Medical Research: Discovery of anti-hypertensive agents
  • Prof. Maureen Murphy, The Wistar Institute, and Prof. Donna George and Prof. Julia Leu, University of Pennsylvania: Oncology
  • Prof. Vanessa Sperandio, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center: Targeting bacterial infections
  • Prof. Stefan Strack, University of Iowa: Targeting mitochondrial fragmentation for neuroprotection

The full list of global winners can be found here. Congrats to all - I'm really looking forward to seeing the outcome of these additional partnerships!