Scripps-Vanderbilt joint institute seeks to bridge med-chem gap

The Scripps Research Institute and Vanderbilt University work to close the “gulf between academic research in chemistry and medical practice” as they launch a joint institute to accelerate the understanding of human chemistry in health and disease

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LA JOLLA, Calif.—Two distinguished research organizations, The Scripps Research Institute and Vanderbilt University, have joined forces to close the "gulf between academic research in chemistry and medical practice"—by launching a joint institute that seeks to accelerate the understanding of human chemistry in health and disease.

Ultimately, says Prof. Gerald Joyce, director of translational science at Scripps, The Human Chemical Sciences Institute will better educate scientists and physicians in the principles and practice of modern chemistry, which will enable them to improve medical care and drive drug discovery innovation.

"There is this funny kind of cultural thing going on in our industry, where everyone is trying to think translational, but if you are one of the world's greatest chemistry departments, you don't want to sully your name with that kind of thing, as if it's beneath your dignity or a threat to the usual way of doing business," Joyce says. "Why is it the very best chemistry departments don't want to go anywhere near applied research? That is not the Scripps way. I think there is a lot of intellectual content in med-chem."

With thousands of miles separating Scripps and Vanderbilt, it may seem strange for the two organizations to form a new institution. Scripps' chemistry department is a bicoastal one, operating out of La Jolla, Calif., and Jupiter, Fla. Vanderbilt's campus is located in Nashville, Tenn. The Human Chemical Sciences Institute will encompass research and training activities at both Scripps campuses and at Vanderbilt's Institute for Chemical Biology (VICB) and School of Medicine in Nashville.

"Vanderbilt is actually closer to either part of Scripps than we are to our own campuses," laughs Joyce, but adds that despite their distance, the two groups are a good match, marrying Scripps' expertise as a powerhouse in synthetic and bioorganic chemistry with Vanderbilt's recognized leadership in drug discovery, genomics, bioinformatics and medical systems innovation. In addition, both organizations have received Clinical and Translational Science Awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to improve human health through clinical and translational research, and both are major players in the search for potential drugs and biomarkers through the NIH-supported Molecular Libraries Probe Centers Network.

"Many in the research community call Scripps 'blue collar," or say we have an entrepreneurial approach, but our style has always been to not forsake chemistry. We have never been afraid to take chemistry out into the world. What we have been missing as a private, non-profit medical research institution is that we don't have a medical facility or hospital. We were looking for an academic partner with clinical goods that thinks like us. We think that's Vanderbilt," he says.

Capitalizing on these strengths, both organizations will provide seed funding to promote cross-institutional and cross-disciplinary research partnerships by focusing on three related pilot programs: drug discovery, personalized medicine and metabolomics.

"Oftentimes, the fear of failure is so high that you don't get funding for pilot studies," Joyce says. "We're willing to let people fail with seed money. The hope is that they can light a little fire and get some preliminary data so they can form a research partnership or go for federal or private funds."

Each of these three programs will be led by representatives from both groups. Drug discovery will be led by Dr. Craig Lindsley, director of medicinal chemistry for Vanderbilt's Program in Drug Discovery, and Dr. Patrick Griffin, chair of Scripps Florida's Department of Molecular Therapeutics. Personalized medicine will be led by Dr. Daniel Salomon, associate professor in the Department of Molecular and Experimental Medicine at Scripps California, and Dr. Dan Roden, assistant vice chancellor for personalized medicine at Vanderbilt. Finally, metabolomics will be led by Dr. Gary Siuzdak, senior director of the Center for Metabolomics at Scripps California, and Dr. Alex Brown, VICB associate director of systems analysis at Vanderbilt.

According to both groups, these efforts will lay the foundation for personalized medicine, for example, by clarifying how variations in the genetic and chemical makeup among individuals can affect their response to nutrients, drugs and compounds in the environment.

The Human Chemical Sciences Institute will also allow students to complete their doctorate degrees in chemical sciences at Scripps, then be pre-accepted to Vanderbilt's School of Medicine, where they will complete their medical degrees in three years, instead of the usual four.

"We believe the new way of thinking about how to do drug discovery and med-chem is as a scientific enterprise," Joyce says. "We are not embarrassed to do it. In fact, we're eager to do it. We think in the next few years, you will see more partnerships between the best chemistry departments and the best medical centers. We're the first, and we are proud to stick our necks out there."

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