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AstraZeneca International Awards Two Fellowships to CEM

The discovery and development of new drug candidates is not for the fainthearted. According to the National Science Foundation, the average drug takes 15 years and more than $800 million in research and development to come to market. Along the way, of course, most drug candidates are derailed during early testing and clinical trials because they do not show sufficient efficacy against the targeted disease, or because they are not selective enough to limit undesirable side effects.

Pharmaceutical companies, and the patients they serve, derive direct benefits from developing technologies that will help companies discern those drugs that have a better chance of success (or failure) earlier in the drug development process. Related to these efforts, AstraZeneca International recently funded two fellowships at the Center for Environmental Medicine that focus on uncovering new findings in basic biology that may be useful for discovering or developing new medicines.

“AstraZeneca has a program to work with external academic collaborators on projects of mutual scientific interest,” said Dr. Ronald Tjalkens, an Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences, and CEM faculty affiliate. “These are subject areas that could enable breakthroughs in understanding how new medicines work or in uncovering potential side effects before promising drug candidates enter clinical trials in patients.”

Dr. James Miller, a member of Dr. Tjalkens’ research team, received an AstraZeneca Postdoctoral Fellowship Project that focuses on the role activated astrocytes play in the initiation of seizure activity. Drug-induced seizures have been documented for broad classes of pharmacological agents including central nervous system and non-central nervous system targeted drugs. Dr. Miller’s work may prove useful in predicting if a new drug candidate has properties that may increase the risk of seizures.

“The postdoctoral fellowship supporting Dr. Miller is part of a larger multi-year grant that represents an ongoing collaboration between my lab and AstraZeneca to better understand how new drug candidates may have side effects that induce seizure in patients,” said Dr. Tjalkens. “Improving our understanding of the fundamental processes regulating the onset of seizure may help to mitigate this risk during the drug development process, saving time and lives by getting better medicines to patients sooner.”

Jenni Berkbigler, a member of Dr. Marie Legare’s research team, received an AstraZeneca PhD Fellowship Project. Dr. Legare is an Assistant Professor in ERHS and also a CEM faculty affiliate. Berkbigler’s project will focus on developing a better understanding of the molecular pathways that regulate expression of drug-metabolizing enzymes in liver cells. She is specifically looking at aryl hydrocarbon receptor activation, which could preclude a drug’s future use in patients. A normally inactive transcription factor, AhR, when activated, can be responsible for toxicity, tumor promotion and endocrine dysfunction. Understanding the signaling for AhR activation may help the development of better predictive assays for AhR activity.

“The PhD fellowship represents a new program in the United States, and the first time AstraZeneca has ever funded a student fellow at Colorado State University,” said Dr. Tjalkens. “We were honored be invited to submit a competitive proposal in the first round of these fellowships in the United States, and pleased to establish a training partnership between CEM and AstraZeneca.”

AstraZeneca International, headquartered in London, is a global biopharmaceutical company dedicated to the discovery, development, manufacturing and marketing of prescription medicines in six important areas of healthcare, focusing on some of the world’s most serious illnesses including cancers, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal diseases, infections, neurological diseases and disorders, respiratory illnesses, and inflammatory conditions. AstraZeneca is the world’s seventh largest pharmaceutical company.

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