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Neuroscience Outtakes Part 2: Vanderbilt’s Jeff Conn on the Role of Academic Labs

On Monday, we highlighted outtakes from our interview with Michael Ehlers, Pfizer’s CSO for neuroscience research, for our story on the state of neuroscience R&D. Today, we wanted to offer a view from academia: Jeff Conn is head of the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery, which in the past several years has generated a number of CNS drug candidates.

While Ehler is focused on the growing body of genetic information that could pave the way for new neuroscience targets, Conn’s lab is taking a somewhat different approach. By scouring the literature for evidence–in humans–of a molecule or target’s activity, the lab then sinks substantial resources into understanding the basic biology driving that activity and designing molecules to exploit it.

In depression, for example, R&D has been stalled by a lack of new targets. But Conn’s lab is intrigued by studies showing that ketamine, an animal tranquilizer (and club drug), swiftly and effectively reduces the symptoms of major depressive disorder. “When I talk to scientists at Vanderbilt, its an approach they’re using for their most refractory patients,” Conn says.

A laundry list of side effects makes wider use of ketamine improbable. As such, Conn’s lab is looking at ways to design molecules that produce the same kind of results on depression without the adverse effects.

Conn, a former Merck researcher, also discussed ways that discovery efforts inside academia can build a scientific case for CNS programs that pharma might otherwise overlook. Vanderbilt scientists spend “twice as much effort in basic science than for the drug discovery itself, and to me, that’s absolutely critical,” Conn says. When the team finds that molecules have different profiles in vitro, they spend a lot of time trying to understand how that will translate into adverse effects in vivo. “In pharma, you have to stay on such a narrow, direct path, that you have to ignore all that,” Conn says. In the academic lab, researchers take a longer, more methodical approach that entails optimizing many different molecules, then putting those in animals to understand what properties a final drug candidate needs to have.

That approach has enabled Vanderbilt scientists to tackle drug targets that have tripped up industry. “mGluR5 is a good example where, early on, we started seeing different properties of molecules in vitro,” he says. “Instead of putting blinders on and moving forward or ignoring it,” an avenue industry scientists are often forced to take, “we deliberately put a lot of effort into optimizing those properties.”

As a result, the Vanderbilt group and its collaborator, J&J, recently moved forward what Conn calls “very safe” schizophrenia drug candidates targeting mGlur5. “I don’t think we ever could have done that in my pharma days because its too far off the critical path,” he says.


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