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Columbia University and Merck have established a small-scale pharmaceutical production center in the Black Building to reduce a major obstacle researchers face in making scientific progress and getting grants. The university and the company also are developing a new course on the principles of modern drug discovery, to start in the spring.

The new Synthetic Organic Chemistry Collaborative Center will provide Columbia researchers with experimental therapeutics and other molecules needed for their preclinical studies. Investigators typically need small quantities of such molecules to conduct pilot studies to show results in support of grant applications to fund larger studies.

These molecules usually are too expensive – costing as much as tens of thousands of dollars – for researchers to buy from custom pharmaceutical production companies, says Dr. Donald Landry, associate professor of medicine at P&S and executive director of the collaborative center, which is located in Dr. Landry's lab.

"This facility will provide small molecules to researchers as tools to obtain proof-of-concept for new ideas. The preliminary data then provide the basis for grants and the grants will pay for the production of larger amounts of the needed small molecules," Dr. Landry says.

The center should also increase patent and commercial opportunities for Columbia, says Dr. Jerry Kokoshka, associate director of Columbia's Science and Technology Ventures, the university's technology transfer office. "Columbia will select the projects for the collaboration and is free to publish scientific papers on its discoveries." Dr. Kokoshka says.

"The goals of the overall project are to advance understanding of the molecular basis of disease and to bring chemistry and medicine together, allowing scientists to leverage knowledge more efficiently," says Dr. Landry, who is also director of the Division of Clinical Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.

Drs. Kokoshka and Landry led the negotiations with Merck, which grew out of discussions between Dr. Landry, his former Harvard University lab partner Dr. James Heck, now vice president of medicinal chemistry at Merck, and Dr. Malcolm MacCoss, vice president of basic chemistry at Merck. The talks resulted in a five-year deal that began in July.

Merck will provide financial support that will help pay for lab staff salaries. The collaborating biologists cover reagent and overhead costs while Dr Landry provides the space and equipment. Dr. Shi-Xian Deng, associate research scientist in medicine at P&S and "an exceptionally talented organic chemist," will direct the synthetic chemistry efforts on a day-to-day basis, Dr Landry says. "A benefit for the staff chemists is that they are exposed to a broader range of biology and interesting molecular targets," Dr. Landry says.

In return, Merck gets priority in negotiating for licenses on novel molecules the lab develops. The company also gets a chance to interact with Columbia students through the new drug discovery course, which could help the company's recruitment efforts. Dr. Milan Stojanovic, assistant professor of science in medicine and a principal investigator in the Division of Experimental Therapeutics, and Dr. Dalibor Sames, assistant professor of chemistry, will handle much of the teaching duties but Merck scientists will participate substantially as guest lecturers.

"Besides helping chemistry doctoral students, the course will educate the Health Sciences faculty about drug discovery and what's possible in synthetic organic chemistry, which in turn will increase the use of the Synthetic Organic Chemistry Collaborative Center," Dr. Landry says.