December 06, 2011
By Donna Peck
In early November, Ross Stein, PhD, joined the Institute for Advancing Medical Innovation (IAMI) as its new deputy director of Discovery and Lead Generation. Stein has worked in nearly every area of the drug discovery business, from large pharmaceutical companies to startup biotech firms to academic institutions, holding positions at Merck, Sirtris Pharmaceuticals and Harvard University's NeuroDiscovery Center. He also worked in KU's Department of Chemistry as a post-doctoral fellow in the early 1980s.
In announcing the new hire, IAMI's director, Scott Weir, PhD, called Stein an "outstanding drug hunter." We sat down with Stein to find out exactly what a drug hunter does ... and why he was interested in coming back to KU.
Q: So let's get this out of the way...what exactly is a drug hunter?
Ross Stein: What drug hunters like I do is take our expertise and experience in basic science and apply it solely toward the purpose of identifying new chemical entities that have the potential to become drugs.
Q: So how is a drug hunter different than other researchers working in the lab?
RS: Well, the best way to put it is that while all drug hunters are scientists, all scientists are not drug hunters. Drug hunters have a singular focus on finding new drugs to cure disease.
Q: Why were you interested in drug hunting here at KU?
RS: Having post-doc'd at KU Lawrence from 1979 to 1981, I'm familiar with the area and university, and really like it here. More importantly, I was impressed with the development of the KU Cancer Center, and with the medicinal chemistry expertise and screening center at KU Lawrence. And, of course, Scott Weir and everyone at IAMI are involved in so many exciting drug development projects. Also, I'm a mid-westerner, and have family in St. Louis.
Q: Your responsibilities here include the High Throughput Screening Laboratory at KU in Lawrence. What kind of specific work does this lab do?
RS: High-throughput screening allows our researchers to conduct tens of thousands of chemical, genetic or pharmacological tests in a very short period of time. For example, let's say an investigator discovers a new enzyme that he thinks may play a role in a particular kind of cancer. As a drug hunter, his goal is to identify a chemical compound that binds to the enzyme and inhibits the enzyme's activity within the cancer cell. The automation and miniaturization technologies of a high-throughput screening lab allows thousands of chemical compounds to be rapidly tested as inhibitors of that enzyme. The state-of-the-art screening technology in the lab at Lawrence makes KU a real player in drug discovery.
Q: Your background includes working for a number of pharmaceutical companies, as well as academic institutions. Do you think academic researchers are taking on more of the drug discovery and development in this country?
RS: Absolutely. There are certain diseases, like ALS and Huntington's disease, which I worked on while at Harvard, which affect so few people that the payoff isn't going to be large enough for many pharmaceutical companies. That is not to say that the people who work in big pharma aren't dedicated to finding cures for disease. But the diseases they pick do have to have a substantial bottom line. Universities, on the other hand, have moved from their traditional role as purely academic education centers to institutions that can drive the sort of innovation needed in drug discovery. Industrial-academic collaborations are becoming the new model, with academic institutions partnering with pharmaceutical companies and biotech startups to discover and develop new drugs for unmet medical needs.