U center has designs on curing world’s ailments

Jamie VanGeest

There are fashion design and interior design, but in the Academic Health Center, drug design is the couture.

University computational, organic and medicinal chemists work together to create drugs for some of America’s most pressing causes of death.

The Center for Drug Design, which opened in 2002, is working on drugs to treat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, leukemia, liver cancer and more.

The Center for Drug Design is not associated with the School of Pharmacy. It is the only University center to concentrate solely on designing drugs, said Elizabeth Wolfson, the center’s administration director.

A lot of research is involved with examining how different molecules react with different types of proteins, said Eric Bennett, assistant director of the Center for Drug Design.

Bennett, a computational chemist, looks at different protein structures with the computer program MacroModel and 3-D glasses.

“We can look at the shape of the potential drug molecule and see if it’s complementary to the shape of the protein,” Bennett said.

Bennett can predict the electrical charge on the proteins and the molecule and predict whether they will have a good reaction.

Proteins serve many functions in an organism. They facilitate reactions in the body and bind to your DNA to turn genes on and off, he said.

“If you can find a drug that gets on to that protein and prevents it from sticking to your DNA,” Bennett said, “then you can change what genes in your body are active.”

The technology does not calculate the molecule with perfect accuracy but is a good predictor of whether the drug’s structure will interact well with the protein, he said.

A common molecule like penicillin prevents the building of a bacterial cell wall by binding to the enzymes that build the wall.

Viewing the protein in 3-D is much better than in 2-D, Bennett said.

“It’s very difficult to see what is going on (in 2-D) because there are so many atoms on top of each other,” he said.

Bennett’s current research is focused on drugs that could treat HIV and tuberculosis.

Steve Patterson, an assistant director at the Center for Drug Design, is a molecule mixer and works with Bennett.

“Eric helps us learn how molecules might interact with a protein,” Patterson said.

Patterson looks for the bio-chemical makeup that is specific to a disease and tries to find a way to disrupt that chemistry.

He is applying for a provisional patent on a drug to treat liver cancer. He said he believes the drug could treat tumor growth in other cancers as well.

If Patterson receives the provisional patent, he would have a year to apply for a full patent on the drug. Then clinical trials would follow, he said.

“We make new molecules we hope that will one day become drugs,” he said. “Our function is to make academic discoveries more readily available for industry.”