Drug Discovery

New drug discovery collaboration targets novel treatments against diseases

September 20, 2017

Southern Research and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) have formed a partnership to advance promising research that could lead to new drugs that address unmet medical needs.

The collaborative program links the drug discovery and development expertise of Birmingham-based Southern Research with UTHSC’s four-campus research network, which was involved in sponsored programs valued at $240.5 million in fiscal year 2016.

“We believe there are a lot of synergies between the two organizations,” said Mark Suto, Ph.D., vice president of Drug Discovery for Southern Research. “UTHSC brings novel scientific insights into diseases with poor treatment options, and we have proven capabilities in drug discovery and development.

“This collaboration with talented UTHSC researchers has great potential to lead to significant discoveries,” Suto added.

Southern Research HTS
Southern Research’s drug discovery efforts are aided by a High-Throughput Screening system.

The new UTHSC/SR Collaborative Research Network (CORNET) Award in Drug Discovery and Development represents an extension of a program launched by Steven R. Goodman, Ph.D., vice chancellor for research at UTHSC in 2016.

The CORNET Awards are designed to provide seed money to support new collaborative research teams and their projects. To-date, the program has provided over $1.1 million in funding to promising university research teams.

Glen E. Palmer, Ph.D., an associate professor in the College of Pharmacy at UTHSC, has been selected to receive the first jointly funded UTHSC/SR CORNET Award. Palmer is targeting the development of an entirely new class of antifungal medications to combat a range of invasive fungal infections, which are blamed in an estimated 1.5 million deaths a year.

“I want to congratulate Dr. Glen Palmer on being our first UTHSC/SR CORNET Award recipient and a second-time CORNET awardee,” Goodman said. “The UTHSC/SR CORNET Award is focused on drug discovery and development for any human disease. We are hopeful that Dr. Palmer’s exciting work and our partnership with Southern Research will lead to a new class of medications against invasive fungal infections.”


Under the new program, UTHSC scientists can apply for funding to advance their research. The partnership is awarding Palmer $50,000 per year for up to two years, with funding for year two dependent upon progress made in year one.

Research projects receiving funding from the UTHSC/SR CORNET Award can take advantage of the shared resources of Southern Research and UTHSC to facilitate drug discovery and development efforts aimed at any disease.

Southern Research Suto
Mark Suto is vice president of Drug Discovery at Southern Research.

Southern Research’s established drug discovery infrastructure will play a key role in the partnership. The organization’s High-Throughput Screening (HTS) Center has a library of more than 1 million compounds and state-of-the-art robotic equipment for a wide variety of screens.

The Birmingham-based non-profit also has deep expertise in medicinal chemistry and pre-clinical drug development, along with bio-containment laboratories and other resources.

Southern Research scientists have discovered seven FDA-approved drugs used in cancer treatment and have evaluated a significant percentage of all medicines on the market.

Southern Research and UTHSC will jointly own intellectual property resulting from projects receiving support from the program. Outside partners will be sought for clinical development and commercialization when projects reach an advanced stage.


Palmer’s research project, titled “Targeting the Aromatic Amino Acid Synthesis Pathway to Develop a New Class of Broad Spectrum Antimicrobial Agents,” aims to develop first-in-class broad-spectrum antimicrobial agents for the treatment of what are often fatal invasive fungal infections.

These infections are a serious and growing global health problem, with mortality rates often exceeding 50 percent for many fungal pathogens. Disturbingly, some of these pathogens are developing resistance to the antifungal drugs now in use.

Southern Research drug discovery
Researcher Glen Palmer of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center is targeting a new antifungal drug in the partnership with Southern Research.

“Mortality rates associated with invasive fungal infections have remained alarmingly high, as many of the antifungal drugs currently available are ineffective in treating these infections, or in some cases themselves are toxic to the patients,” Palmer said.

“Over the last few years, my lab has devised some novel approaches to discover new antimicrobial compounds. The collaborative effort between the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and Southern Research will provide a framework with the resources needed to apply these methods on a scale at which they can have a real impact,” he added.

“Additionally, it will bring the know-how and experience needed to progress the experimental therapeutics we discover towards new and improved drugs to ultimately improve the prognoses of patients with life-threatening invasive fungal infections.”

Southern Research’s HTS Center will assist Palmer in screening around 200,000 compounds for active chemical leads as part of the project. Southern Research’s Chemistry Department will play an integral role in the work after the initial active compounds are identified.

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