Drug Development Symposium Encourages Collaborative Research

Last Updated on October 20, 2015 at 9:17 am

Originally published November 7, 2014

By Nadia M. Whitehead

UTEP News Service

Chemists, biologists and psychologists came together this fall for The University of Texas at El Paso’s first Drug Development Symposium. The event gave faculty and students the opportunity to mingle, network and learn about each other’s work, with a particular focus on the medicinal advances taking place on campus.

The idea for the October event was championed by Rachid Skouta, Ph.D., a medicinal chemist whose specialty is designing and synthesizing new drugs to fight cancer, neurodegeneration and parasites, and Karine Fenelon, Ph.D. a neuroscientist who studies the effects of drugs on neurodegenerative diseases.

Organizers of UTEP’s first annual Drug Development Symposium, from left, Theresa Valenzuela, BBRC network manager; doctoral candidates George S. Martinez and Yenni Garcia; Rachid Skouta, Ph.D., research assistant professor of biological sciences; Karine Fenelon, Ph.D., assistant professor of biological sciences; and doctoral candidates Gloria Polanco and Ellen M. Walker. Photo courtesy of Rachid Skouta

Organizers of UTEP’s first annual Drug Development Symposium are, from left, Theresa Valenzuela, BBRC network manager; doctoral candidates George S. Martinez and Yenni Garcia; Rachid Skouta, Ph.D., research assistant professor of biological sciences; Karine Fenelon, Ph.D., assistant professor of biological sciences; and doctoral candidates Gloria Polanco and Ellen M. Walker. Photo courtesy of Rachid Skouta

“There’s a big need to start bridging disciplines for drug discovery,” Skouta said. “Chemists can create specialized drugs for biologists and psychologists to then take and test in their laboratories.”

In hopes of spurring new, successful collaborations on campus and building awareness about a variety of ongoing projects, researchers from UTEP and New Mexico State University were given the chance to present their work to an interdisciplinary audience. Session topics ranged from studies on HIV and breast cancer to the production of new therapies derived from marine sources.

Director of Biotechnology Federica Pericle, Ph.D., was glad to hear about the new initiative.

“Crucial research happens at the university level,” said Pericle, who helps UTEP researchers patent their developments and create startup companies. “Many times people don’t realize how much potential innovation can occur at a university, but this basic research can eventually translate into new drugs.”

One promising study highlighted at the symposium was from the lab of Rosa Maldonado, Ph.D., a biologist who studies a disease known as cutaneous Leshmaniasis. Spread by the bite of sandflies that are infected with the parasite Leishmania, symptoms include unpleasant skin ulcers that leave scars and can cause disability.

In search of a nontoxic drug that can kill the parasite, doctoral student Eva Iniguez has been testing the effectiveness of a compound created by a collaborator at New York University.

So far, the drug has been quite effective in lab tests, she said at the symposium – decreasing the size of lesions in mice by 70 percent. It also appears to be nontoxic, meaning it doesn’t cause weight loss, illness or death.

While Iniguez will continue verifying the drug’s promising effects, she’s excited to have recently begun working on Leshmaniasis with a local medicinal chemist: Skouta.

“It’s much easier to work with someone who is at the same university than in a different state,” she explained. “Rather than sending emails back and forth across the country, the process works much easier and quicker when your collaborator is on the same campus.”

Skouta hopes to design and synthesize an even better drug against the disease, and so far, the team has had some exciting preliminary data. However, the results cannot be revealed until they publish their work this December.

In the end, Iniguez was thrilled share her work at the symposium; it gave her the chance to practice her communication skills and get feedback from others.

“I think we should be doing this more often,” she said, calling the Drug Development Symposium a valuable experience. “I got some unique feedback from faculty I didn’t know about before, and I learned about other interesting experiments that are going on.”

Skouta plans to continue the event next year and hopes to expand the size of the conference by inviting more researchers from other universities across the country.

More than 100 UTEP researchers attended this year’s event. According to Skouta, several interdisciplinary collaborations were created because of it.

Some may lead to the development of a new drug.

The Drug Development Symposium on Oct. 10 was sponsored by the College of Science, the Border Biomedical Research Center and funds provided by former Professor of Biological Sciences Larry P. Jones.

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