6th UF Drug Discovery Symposium sparks new ideas and collaborations

By Tyler Francischine

A successful career in drug discovery requires a precise combination of scientific acumen, determination and sheer ingenuity. In a field as intellectually stimulating and challenging as medicinal chemistry, opportunities to connect with colleagues, exchange ideas and gain new perspectives are as critical as time spent in the lab.

Hosted by the University of Florida Center for Natural Products, Drug Discovery and Development, or CNPD3, in conjunction with The Herbert Wertheim UF Scripps Institute for Biomedical Innovation and Technology, the 6th UF Drug Discovery Symposium, held April 15-16 at the UF Hilton Conference Center in Gainesville, provided ample occasions for leading experts in the field of drug discovery to gather from throughout the country — and even internationally — in the name of scientific exchange.

The event featured five keynote speeches from renowned leaders in the field such as Wendy Young, Ph.D., former senior vice president of small molecule drug discovery at Genentech, as well as 20 presentations from researchers, a poster session featuring 60 presenters, and two sessions of short talks given by postdoctoral fellows and graduate students from several Florida institutions. Young said the symposium’s presentations filled her mind with fresh insights, and some even sparked ideas for new program directions.

“Sharing our knowledge and research in drug discovery is paramount in order to keep things moving forward. Part of the benefit — besides learning the latest and greatest — is the connectivity we get with colleagues. While I was listening to Paul J. Hergenrother speak, I was inspired to think of a connection I can make with another researcher,” Young said. “Every time I sit in the audience and hear new science, I learn something, or it reminds me of something I haven’t thought about in a while. It often ignites new thought and gets my creative juices flowing.”

Young said the 6th UF Drug Discovery Symposium, which was attended by 185 faculty members, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, donors and industry leaders, aptly exemplified the national preeminence of the CNPD3. Directed by Hendrik Luesch, Ph.D., a professor and chair of the department of medicinal chemistry, as well as the Debbie and Sylvia DeSantis Chair in Natural Products Drug Discovery and Development, the work conducted at the CNPD3 entails all aspects of natural products research from discovery through chemical synthesis and biosynthesis, screening and target identification to drug development.

“The interface between academia and industry is so crucial because it takes a village to make a drug,” Young said. “For most drugs, basic research is what spurs the program that then moves into industry. Centers like the CNPD3 are such great places to incubate and provide the genesis for a lot of projects that will later get picked up and developed by biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.”

Alessio Ciulli, Ph.D., a professor of chemical structural biology and founder and director of the Centre for Targeted Protein Degradation at the University of Dundee in the United Kingdom, presented his work in a keynote address entitled “How PROTAC Degraders Work: Molecular Recognition and Design Principles.” Ciulli said his team’s work in medicinal chemistry keeps him inspired and invigorated due to its potential to directly impact patient outcomes.

“For me, as a chemist by training, what’s always excited me are chemical structures and interactions and how they impact biological activity, which ultimately underpins drug discovery at a fundamental level. I’ve always known that this has a great potential to benefit patients, but I’ve not had the opportunity to tangibly witness that until more recently. Now, I’ve seen the tremendous impact of the fundamental science we’ve been doing in the field of targeted protein degradation,” Ciulli said. “The ultimate goal of what we’re doing has to sit with the patients. Where is the most medical need? What will success look like for a patient?”

Brian Blagg, Ph.D., director of the Warren Family Research Center for Drug Discovery and Development and the Charles Huisking professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame, said 2024 marks an important era for medicinal chemistry as a rapidly advancing field, making this year’s symposium even more timely and necessary.

“With sequencing of the human genome and advances in structural biology, science is going in a new direction. We have all this data that didn’t exist 20, even 10, years ago. Drug discovery experts are critical right now,” Blagg said. “Academic drug discovery is probably soon going to be competitive with industrial drug discovery, and it will likely be responsible for fundamental discoveries. I think it’s really time for medicinal chemistry to flourish.”

The 6th UF Drug Discovery Symposium wrapped up with an awards ceremony honoring students and trainees for their presentations and research accomplishments. After thanking the presenters and trainees for their impressive and thematically diverse displays of scientific discovery, Luesch remarked on the unique qualities that make medicinal chemistry such a rewarding career path.

“The magic of medicinal chemistry is its multidisciplinary nature,” Luesch said. “Drug discovery is truly a team sport.”

Below are the students and trainees recognized at the 6th UF Drug Discovery Symposium award ceremony:

Poster presentation winners (graduate student category):

  • Vanisa Petriti, Department of Medicinal Chemistry, College of Pharmacy, University of Florida
  • Alexis A. Bragg, Department of Medicinal Chemistry, College of Pharmacy, University of Florida
  • Joel Tong, Department of Chemistry, The Wertheim UF Scripps Institute for Biomedical Innovation & Technology
  • Zachary M. Rabinowitz, Department of Medicinal Chemistry, College of Pharmacy, University of Florida

Poster presentation winner (postdoctoral category)

  • Mallesh Kathe, Department of Medicinal Chemistry, College of Pharmacy, University of Florida

Oral presentation winner (postdoctoral category)

  • Andrés Cumsille, Department of Microbiology and Cell Science, University of Florida

Oral presentation winners (graduate student category)

  • Corey M. Perkins, Department of Pharmaceutics, College of Pharmacy, University of Florida
  • Yuzhao Zhang, Department of Medicinal Chemistry, College of Pharmacy, University of Florida