"We found there are approximately 14 drugs [from Purdue] undergoing clinical testing. For a university, that's extraordinary," says Low, the Ralph C. Corley distinguished professor of chemistry. "These are drugs that were actually generated from discoveries at Purdue. A lot of our neighboring Big Ten institutions aren't even close to that."
Having identified the strength, Low says the university is now hoping to "showcase it to the rest of the world" by having a campus facility dedicated solely to pharmaceutical development.
"The fact that, internally, we didn't recognize this as a major strength of the university indicates it's something we haven't brought attention to," says Low. "There's just a tremendous resource here that's already available that we haven't exploited; building on this makes a lot of strategic sense." Listen
Expected to be complete in 2014, the building has a myriad of goals, such as enhance the university's reputation for pharmaceutical development, increase research funding, attract "star" researchers and encourage current Purdue faculty to venture down the path to commercialization.
"In the past, it's been very common for tremendous discoveries at the university to simply be published and not pursued; this basically just gives the technology away to whatever drug company may want to pick it up and run with it," says Low. "The hope is we'll be transferring a lot of this technology from the university to small spin-off companies associated with the university out at the [Purdue] Research Park." Listen
The university is also hopeful rather than "giving away" technologies to major pharmaceutical companies, it could form lucrative partnerships that would benefit Purdue.
"The pharmaceutical industry around the country and around the world is actually struggling to discover new drugs; a lot of the latest discoveries are coming from universities and small biotech firms," says Low. "As a result, big pharmaceutical companies are sending out scouting teams constantly—we've had quite a number come through here—looking for new technology and opportunities to collaborate to develop this technology." Listen
Purdue's greatest opportunity for such partnerships or spin-off companies is likely in the development of cancer drugs, which account for a dozen of the university's 14 potential drugs in clinical trials. Timothy Ratliff, the Robert Wallace Miller director of the Purdue Center for Cancer Research, says the center's expertise is in "targeted drug delivery," unlike present methods of cancer treatment that he likens to the U.S. strategy of carpet bombing during WWII.
"We knew there'd be a target within a city, so we'd bomb the whole city and figure, well, we're going to get the target too," says Ratliff. "It's the same thing with chemotherapy today. We give these very strong chemotherapeutic agents to kill all these different cells, and we think, well, they get the cancer cells too."
Contrarily, Ratliff describes targeted therapy as "laser-guided missiles."
"What we're doing is finding molecules on the surface of cancer cells that allow us to send the chemotherapeutic agents directly to the cancer cells, so the toxicity is much, much lower," says Ratliff. "They're not delivered in an active form to non-cancer cells." Listen
While the facility doesn't include classroom space, there will be small meeting rooms and laboratories with glass observation areas to increase student-faculty interaction.
"We plan to initiate a degree in drug discovery that will include all components of the drug discovery process," says Low, "from the design of molecules, to the selection of druggable targets, to the approval process for new drugs with the FDA—the whole gamut of steps in taking a new drug into humans."
Low says the degree would be the first of its kind in the region—a natural outgrowth of a facility that aims to enhance all facets of drug development: education, research and commercialization. For a university that previously didn't recognize its own strength, a building that broadcasts the school's prominence could be just what the doctor ordered.