Invented at VCU reception honors sickle cell researchers

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When Donald Abraham, Ph.D., arrived at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1988 as chair of the Department of Medicinal Chemistry, he set out to develop a treatment for people with sickle cell disease, a painful, sometimes life-threatening disorder that today affects as many as 100,000 people in the United States.

The 26 years of work that followed Abraham’s arrival led this year to a giant step closer in realizing the decades-old dream. A compound he and his research team discovered at VCU, named Aes-103, along with the company developing it, were acquired by Baxter International, a global health care company with expertise in medical devices, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.

The acquisition means advanced clinical trials will take many fewer years to complete, thus drastically reducing the time it will take for Aes-103 to become the only approved drug in the world that is therapeutically effective in managing adult sickle cell disease by targeting hemoglobin.

For the work that led to this milestone, VCU last week honored Abraham, Martin Safo, Ph.D., and Richmond Danso-Danquah, Ph.D., at the ninth annual Invented at VCU reception hosted by VCU Innovation Gateway. Each of the scientists received the Billy R. Martin Award for Innovation.

The three developed the compound at the VCU Institute for Structural Biology and Drug Discovery, an interdisciplinary research center spanning the VCU School of Medicine and the VCU School of Pharmacy. Safo is associate professor of medicinal chemistry, Danso-Danquah is formerly assistant professor of medicinal chemistry and Abraham is emeritus director of the institute.

VCU Innovation Gateway was an essential component in moving the discovery to market, acting as a liaison to outside companies. It is a university resource that facilitates commercialization of university inventions and supports research through collaborative agreements.

The compound’s development is an example of the type of innovation that VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said will transform the Richmond region into a home for innovation. In five years, he said, he sees the region as having a more innovation-based economy with more startups and more large companies.

“I believe in this vision for Richmond’s future because of people like you,” he told the crowd and the awardees. “You are prolific in developing new technologies and, even more, you’re moving them very quickly to the market to help people.”

Rao and Frank Macrina, Ph.D., vice president for research and innovation, presented the awards to the trio.

Upon receiving his award, Abraham said that no drug discovery is made alone. He also quoted Paul Ehrlich, a 1908 Nobel Prize winner in medicine, saying that four things are needed in drug discovery: patience, skill, luck and money.

“I must say that all of those things were involved here,” he said. He then highlighted the interdisciplinary expertise available at VCU as the skill portion of the equation; the decades of work as the patience portion; the support of Eugene P. Trani, Ph.D., former president of VCU, as the money portion; and a chance encounter on a train in Europe as the luck portion.  

Abraham also credited his team’s success to the collegial environment at VCU, which was essential, Macrina said.

“Collegiality on a number of levels,” he said. “Between departments and centers, deans and chairs … and in relationships with the corporate sector, companies and venture capitalists who played an important part in the discovery we’re celebrating today.”

We have an obligation to move discoveries to the benefit of society.

These relationships as well as robust research support from Rao are important parts of what has become a culture of translational research, Macrina said.

“It is a manifestation of the obligation that we take money from sources such as the federal government, philanthropic individuals and the private sector to then create new knowledge,” he said. “We have an obligation to move discoveries to the benefit of society.”

Update: See an article in Nature, an international weekly journal of science, that highlights Abraham and Aes-103 here.


Feature image at top: VCU President Michael Rao (left), Ph.D., with winners of the 2014 Billy R. Martin Award for Innovation: (from left to right) Richmond Danso-Danquah, Ph.D., former assistant professor, Department of Medicinal Chemistry, VCU School of Pharmacy; Martin Safo, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Medicinal Chemistry, VCU School of Pharmacy; and Donald Abraham, Ph.D., emeritus director of the VCU Institute for Structural Biology and Drug Discovery.


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