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Pioneering education and research program leads to international conference at IUPUI


INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis will host scientists from around the world next week for the first-ever workshop devoted to Distributed Drug Discovery, an innovative, student-driven research program quickly becoming a high-impact, low-cost teaching model.

Distributed Drug Discovery, or D3, combines organic chemical synthesis, computational chemistry and biological evaluation as undergraduates work to develop and test chemical compounds that could be developed into new drugs. Since the program began in 2005, more than 800 compounds have been made; several have been identified as relevant to drug discovery for neglected diseases, those that may be common in many parts of the world but overlooked by developed countries.

Through D3, students are motivated to solve important humanitarian challenges while also learning to apply interdisciplinary research skills to a project with global implications. It engages beginning students with a research challenge that is scientifically important and socially relevant, said William Scott, a research professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and a former scientist for Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co.

“We believe that Indianapolis, through the success of this program, can become a national and international center linking science education to drug discovery,” Scott said.

This research model has gained international attention, leading program coordinators to speaking engagements and site visits in various parts of the world and resulting in the inaugural workshop planned for July 22 to 26 at IUPUI.

Scott and collaborator Martin O’Donnell, IUPUI Chancellor’s Professor in chemistry, say the D3 conference will further promote the program and expand interest and support from the research, education and business communities. Scientists from the National Institutes of Health, Harvard University, Howard University and other U.S. colleges and universities will participate in the conference alongside peers from Kenya, Poland and the Czech Republic.

“With the help of Ryan Denton and Geno Samaritoni in the chemistry department, we’ve implemented the D3 program with more than 1,500 IUPUI undergraduates as part of the sophomore organic chemistry lab and 17 undergraduate researchers on a more long-term basis,” O’Donnell said.

“Our undergraduates are pushing forward the frontiers of drug discovery while they learn basic research skills and best practices,” he added.

D3 students have collaborated on several peer-reviewed, research publications. The model has been piloted at sites in Russia, Spain, Poland and a number of U.S. universities. The conference will allow top-level researchers and educators to influence the growth of the program and expand international collaborations, O’Donnell said.

IUPUI graduates who participated in D3 have gone on to become National Science Foundation research fellows and have been accepted at some of the most prestigious M.D. and Ph.D. programs in the country. Professors at a number of schools have secured their own grants based on the incorporation of D3 into their undergraduate educational efforts.

“The cross-disciplinary nature of this program mirrors the needs of the pharmaceutical industry and is a great way to train students to fill jobs that are so important in the effort to treat diseases,” Scott said.

D3 is funded through an NSF research grant. With help from Kathy Marrs and Greg Anderson, both of the Department of Biology, the program recently expanded into IUPUI biology labs, where compounds created in chemistry labs are being evaluated for antibacterial activity and potential treatment of cystic fibrosis.