Symposium Will Examine 30 Years of Partnership, Progress as U Pharmacy College, NIH Search for Epilepsy Medications

Symposium Will Examine 30 Years of Partnership, Progress as U Pharmacy College, NIH Search for Epilepsy Medications

Oct 12, 2004 6:00 PM

Thirty years and $42 million in research funding. Twenty-four thousand compounds and nine new epilepsy drugs.

The University of Utah College of Pharmacy has become one of the world's premier epilepsy research centers since the National Institutes of Health (NIH) presented a challenge in 1974 to then U of U professor and Dean of the College of Pharmacy Ewart A. Swinyard: help find new drugs to treat epilepsy.

With that, the University of Utah Anticonvulsant Drug Development Program (ADD) was established in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, which had a rich history in epilepsy research and was internationally regarded for its work. The NIH backed up its request with $30 million in grant funding over the past three decades. During that time, ADD researchers have evaluated as many as 800 compounds a year and helped bring nine antiepileptic medications to market--a remarkable success rate given that getting one drug on the shelf typically requires testing approximately 10,000 compounds.

This summer, as evidence of the program's achievements and the continued need for more effective antiepileptic drugs, the NIH's Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke awarded ADD a new five-year, $12.7 million grant, bringing the total continuous funding to more than $42 million. The agency also issued a new, twofold challenge with the grant: help find medications for epilepsy cases that haven't responded to drug therapy and study the pathophysiology of the disorder to identify at-risk people who might be helped by preventive or disease-modifying medications.

To mark its 30-year partnership with the NIH, the ADD program will hold a symposium and banquet on Oct. 19-20. "Partners for Progress--30 Years of Epilepsy Research" will bring together leading academic researchers, NIH officials, and representatives from epilepsy advocacy groups to discuss how advancements in understanding and treating the disorder have set the stage for future research. Researchers from the University of Utah, University of California, San Francisco, Washington University, the Danish University of Pharmaceutical Sciences, and other major institutions will speak. The symposium takes place at the U of U Heritage Center from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and discussion topics will range from the "Genetics of Epilepsy" to "The Ongoing Search for a Cure."

An Oct. 19 banquet at the University Marriott Hotel will honor Harold H. Wolf, Ph.D., professor emeritus of pharmacology and toxicology, former dean of pharmacy, and former ADD program director, for his service and contributions to epilepsy research. Jose Woodhead, lab director who joined the University in 1963, and plans to retire in April, also will be honored for her work with the ADD program.

"Collaborations between the NIH and the University of Utah have resulted in tremendous advancements in our understanding of epilepsy," said H. Steve White, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and toxicology and ADD director. "While this symposium offers the opportunity to look back on the accomplishments of the past 30 years, we also look forward to continuing our partnership with the NIH as we search for new drugs to help people with this devastating condition."

Epilepsy is a neurological condition that makes people susceptible to seizures. An estimated 2.5 million Americans and 40 million people worldwide have the disorder. The financial cost of epilepsy, from lost work time, medical expenses, and other outlays, is huge--an estimated $12 billion in the United States last year.

When NIH officials approached the U College of Pharmacy in 1974, only a few antiepileptic medications existed, and pharmaceutical companies had little financial incentive to develop new ones, according to White. The staggering cost of bringing a drug to market--from $400 million to $900 million today--continues to discourage drug companies and academic laboratories from developing new antiepileptic medications. The NIH emphasizes research on diseases and medications that pharmaceutical companies neglect because their return on investment may not be high enough. That's where the ADD program has filled a unique niche, according to James Stables, NIH program director who works with the ADD program. By evaluating compounds for their pre-clinical efficacy, toxicity, and safety, ADD researchers help pharmaceutical companies and academic laboratories determine if they have a drug worth pursuing as an antiepileptic medication.

"Participating in this program with the NIH and ADD can save companies tremendous amounts of money," Stables said. "We share the burden of the risk of failure."

More than 160 companies and 240 academic laboratories work with the ADD program through the NIH, Stables said.

The ADD program has evaluated nearly every antiepileptic medication available. But the program isn't resting on its past success. Currently, several potential antiepileptic medications evaluated by ADD are in various stages of human clinical trials. The program also has formed a partnership with Primary Children's Medical Center--the Pediatric Pharmacotherapy Initiative--to target drug discovery and delivery for children with epilepsy.

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