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NIH grant would let UA's BIO5 Institute open screening center

By Natasha Bhuyan
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Monday, November 15, 2004
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The UA is hoping to be part of an exclusive group of universities by developing new medical drugs using technology not readily available in the university setting.

The UA's BIO5 Institute and High Throughput Genomics, a private Tucson company, hope to receive a grant that would give them access to faster technology to test potential medical drugs against diseases and cancer.

The BIO5 Institute, formerly called the Institute for Biomedical Science and Biotechnology, combines medicine, pharmacology, basic science, agriculture and engineering in biological research to tackle problems such as disease, hunger and maintaining livable environments, according to the BIO5 Web site.

The BIO5 Institute and High Throughput Genomics have applied for an $11 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for a drug screening program which uses a method called "high throughput screening" to test potential medicine against diseases.

Gerry Maggiora, co-principal investigator for the research project, said high throughput screening involves taking a biological target, such as nucleic acids, enzymes or ion channels, and testing chemical compounds on the target to see if the chemicals inhibit or stimulate activity.

In March, the National Institutes of Health will grant six universities funding to establish drug screening centers and purchase 100,000 samples for a molecular library, a facility many academic institutions have limited access to, in order to encourage the use of high throughput screening.

Vicki Chandler, director of BIO5 and a Regents professor in the plant science department, said the screening center would be beneficial, as it would enable new medicine to be developed and provide facilities not available in academic settings, allowing research scientists to perform experiments they wouldn't typically perform.

"I think it's a really exciting opportunity," Chandler said. "It's going to provide a resource for a large number of faculty to take advantage of."

Chandler said one factor that might correlate with cancer is if a particular gene is expressed at high levels. A high throughput screening could detect if a chemical prevents the gene from acting abnormally, determining whether or not it could be a candidate drug.

Maggiora, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences, pharmacology and toxicology who did research in the pharmaceutical industry for 18 years, said what makes high throughput screening unique is its speed, which allows thousands of molecules to be tested a day.

"In the old days running experiments with graduate students, 10 (samples) a day would be pretty good," Maggiora said. "These can do thousands per day."

Michael Cusack, vice president of marketing and sales for High Throughput Genomics, said in addition to being faster, High Throughput Genomics' screening technology can track 16 components of a sample at once to give a more accurate picture of how the sample reacts to the chemical. This is beneficial, Cusack said, because most diseases are multifactoral, meaning they are caused by more than one genetic problem.

High throughput screening also saves labor because it does not require sample preparation as other methods do, Cusack said.

Lajos Szabo, an associate research scientist for pharmacology and toxicology and co-principal investigator for the project, said the drug-screening program will combine biology, chemistry and cheminformatics, the application of a database system to chemistry.

"Everything's taken up a couple of notches in terms of speed, magnitude and complexity of what's going on," Maggiora said.

If the grant proposal is approved, the center would initially be located at High Throughput Genomics' laboratories and the UA's Arizona Health Science Center. It would later relocated to BIO5 Institute's Thomas W. Keating Building, on the corner of North Warren Avenue and East Helen Street, which is currently under construction and expected to be completed in early 2006, according to the BIO5 Web site.

"It's an opportunity for Tucson to have a crown jewel in the bioscience community," Cusack said. "It can attract high-quality people, it's good for the university (and) good for the economy."

To learn more about BIO5 or HTG, visit their Web sites at and

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