UIC collaborates on search for sleep apnea drug

Millions of Americans suffering from sleep-disordered breathing may awaken more refreshed should a new drug be discovered by researchers collaborating at three Chicago academic institutions.

Gregory Thatcher, professor of medicinal chemistry

Gregory Thatcher, UIC professor of medicinal chemistry. Photo: UIC Photo Services (click on image to download)

The UICentre, together with scientists at the University of Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute, have received a $8.5 million federal Centers for Advanced Diagnostics and Experimental Therapeutics in Lung Diseases (CADET) grant to develop a new treatment for sleep-disordered breathing from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, one of the National Institutes of Health.

The UICentre (Collaborative Engagement in Novel Therapeutic Research and Enterprise) is an alliance of UIC scientists across the colleges of Pharmacy, Medicine, and Liberal Arts and Sciences whose mission is to discover novel small molecules that can be used as potential drug leads to treat illnesses ranging from Ebola to Alzheimer’s disease.

UIC would not have been able to secure a drug discovery and development project of this magnitude had it not been for the creation of the Centre, said Gregory Thatcher, professor of medicinal chemistry at UIC and the collaborative’s  director.

“The majority of research leading to novel therapeutics is still performed by large pharmaceutical companies,” Thatcher said. “However, the increased financial burden of developing new drugs has them looking for academic partners to help mitigate the risk of the early discovery process.”

Billions of dollars has been spent by the NIH over the last several decades on biological research. While discoveries have been made, few individual academic laboratories are capable of performing the multi-disciplinary research needed to translate discoveries from the lab to the development of novel therapeutics that will impact human health, Thatcher said.

“NIH has recognized this translational ‘gap’, and in response is funding initiatives such as the CADET grant,” he said. “In the current drug discovery climate, there is a clear opportunity for academic labs to secure funding from NIH programs, to present themselves as potential partners with pharmaceutical companies, and to become an economic driver in society.”

Sleep-disordered breathing encompasses several chronic conditions — sleep apnea, central apnea and periodic breathing — in which breathing is interrupted many times throughout the night. It presents a severe economic burden to society.

Along with daytime sleepiness, slow reflexes, poor concentration and an increased risk of accidents, sleep apnea also leads to serious health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and weight gain. There are no drugs to treat the condition.

After discovering a specific biological target to control sleep-disorder breathing, University of Chicago physiologist Nanduri Prabhakar called upon Thatcher and Pavel Petukhov, UIC professor of medicinal chemistry, to create a molecule that can specifically hit this target. A team of 10 faculty scientists at UIC will design these molecules to alleviate apnea, with essential animal efficacy studies to be carried out at the University of Chicago.

A third Chicago institution, the IIT Research Institute, led by Dave McCormick, is to collaborate on drug development leading to clinical trials.