July 9, 2014
Pictured with Dr. Larsen are Drs. Kim Hutchings and Walajapet Rajaswaran, VMCC synthetic organic chemists who are working on the scleroderma project.

Modern drug discovery and development requires a substantial team effort, and Dr. Scott Larsen, director of the Vahlteich Medicinal Chemistry Core (VMCC), exemplifies this with his recent three-year, $2M award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Dr. Larsen is a member of a team of basic science and clinician researchers at U-M and MSU who have joined forces to further the development of novel compounds for the treatment of scleroderma. The initial discovery was made by Dr. Richard Neubig, chair of the pharmacology and toxicology department at Michigan State University, via high-throughput screening at the Center for Chemical Genomics at the U-M Life Sciences Institute.

Dr. Larsen, a former Pharmacia and Pfizer researcher, provided key insights into the process of drug development as well as leading the chemical optimization efforts. Interestingly, the compounds were originally designed as cancer therapies, but then the same signaling pathway was shown to function in scleroderma.

“This was an important discovery and had great potential,” reflects Dr. Larsen, “but we needed to connect with clinical researchers with access to skin samples and in vivo models in order to be competitive for NIH funding and advance this potential treatment.”

Enter donors, Jonathon and Lisa Rye, a southeastern Michigan couple whose family has been affected by scleroderma. They provided initial funding and an introduction to U-M experts Dr. Dinesh Khanna, associate professor of internal medicine and head of Michigan’s scleroderma program and Dr. David Fox, professor of internal medicine and chief of rheumatology.

With funding in hand and a recent paper in The Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, these researchers are off to a great start in search of a new drug for scleroderma treatment.

“I’m thrilled to see Scott’s success, especially since our initiatives in drug discovery are an integral part of what we do. As the College of Pharmacy joins with other drug discovery researchers under the virtual center, Center for the Discovery of New Medicines,” states Dr. David Sherman, associate dean for research and graduate education. “I fully expect that we’ll have more success stories to share in the area of drug discovery.”

Learn more: 
U-M, MSU Researchers Find "Off" Switch for Scleroderma
Michigan scientists give hope to patients with rare scleroderma