Drug discovery symposium maps new frontiers, collaborations

More than 300 students, faculty and industry researchers from more than 80 institutions convened at Northeastern University on Tuesday for a daylong symposium on the future of drug discovery and development with an eye toward treating debilitating diseases.

The event took place in the Curry Student Center and was co-hosted by Terry Fulmer, dean of the Bouvé College of Health Sciences and Murray Gibson, dean of the College of Science. “Our distinguished speakers really gave us a lens into the future which is so exciting,” said Fulmer. Gibson praised the symposium’s collaborative nature, saying, “We were delighted to have outstanding external leaders describe the cutting edge of drug discovery, in the context of our leading efforts here at Northeastern, and inform our future plans.”

Graham Jones, chair of Northeastern’s department of chem­istry and chem­istry biology, explained that a common theme that emerged throughout the day was the need for “collaboration and integration to prevent duplication of effort among developers, and to ensure companies invest capital in the most promising areas.”

In one of three keynote speeches, pioneering chemist George Whitesides noted the remarkable fact that he was “here, in front of you, alive.” Despite being exposed to thousands of harmful pathogens on a regular basis, he said, our life expectancy outpaces that of our ancestors by decades. “We are selected to be phenomenally robust as complex systems,” said Whitesides, a Harvard University professor whose work has fundamentally changed the paradigm of science in various ways.

World-renowned systems biologist Leroy Hood, whose ground-breaking work paved the way for the Human Genome Project, agreed: “It’s clear that one of the enormous challenges in studying disease is the incredible complexity of living organisms,” said Hood, who served as the featured speaker on Monday at Northeastern’s Profiles in Innovation Presidential Speaker Series.

The program of 11 speakers, which included researchers from industry as well as academia, tackled these and other challenges facing the field with a morning session chaired by Mansoor Amiji, chair of the department of pharmaceutical sciences, and an afternoon session chaired by Jones. Isabel Cunha-Vasconcelo, the director of corporate & foundation relations and research advancement in the Bouve College of Health Sciences, helped organize the event, which covered a variety of topics including an overview on the state of cystic fibrosis therapy research and a discussion of new antiviral compounds through the story of Darunavir, a frontline AIDS/HIV drug.

The third keynote address, given by Carnegie Mellon biomedical engineering professor Alan J. Russell, focused on the current state of regenerative medicine. “The holy grail is really drug induced regeneration,” he said, indicating that the field will ultimately move away from more invasive processes that involve whole cell injections.

The event, which also featured an exposition of Northeastern’s myriad contributions in the field, “was a striking success,” said Fulmer. “New investigator to investigator contacts were established and potential new collaborations mapped out.”