Innovation in Drug Discovery

The Center for Systems Biomedicine (CSBM) at UCLA, under the leadership of Dimitrios Iliopoulos, PhD MBA, has implemented an unprecedented infrastructure combining the best of university-based laboratory research, hospital-based clinical research, and biotech industry research to dramatically expedite the process of discovering new therapeutic drugs and bringing them to patients.

“At the UCLA Center for Systems Biomedicine, we will be able to take advantage of our infrastructure and powerful new technologies to perform experiments that will help us to more rapidly identify new therapies for digestive diseases, as well as many other conditions,” says Dimitrios Iliopoulos, Ph.D. MBA.

The future of drug discovery is by following a systems approach, which biology brings together disparate specialties using the latest automated technologies to extract data from large numbers of patient tissue samples in an effort to better understand how diseases originate and develop therapies based on that knowledge. The new center’s large-scale approach to tissue analysis and drug discovery involves processing hundreds of thousands of samples each year through the use of powerful high-throughput screening methods.

Dr. Iliopoulos notes that biomedical research institutes tend to fall into three categories, each of which has its strengths and limitations:

* The classic university-based laboratory model is strongest at applying the advanced tools of molecular biology to conduct research on cellular and animal models of disease. But because of funding and space constraints, each laboratory tends to be narrowly focused on a single gene or mechanism, resulting in a slower pace of discovery.

* Hospital-based clinical laboratories study the tissue and blood of patients, making their research more directly relevant to human disease. However, Dr. Iliopoulos points out that these efforts typically involve observational approaches rather than in-depth, systematic examinations aimed at determining the cause of the disease process or targeting a drug to address the problem.

* And finally, the model followed by pharmaceutical and biotech companies applies the same types of automated technologies to screen thousands of potential drugs as the UCLA Center for Systems Biomedicine, but the research tends not to involve patient samples due to the fact that patient samples have to be processed directly after surgery and also because, projects tend to be short-term.

The UCLA Center for Systems Biomedicine combines the strengths of all three models to create what Dr. Iliopoulos believes will be an optimal, integrated infrastructure. “We are a university-based center with basic research laboratories, hospital-based clinical research, and the technology of a pharmaceutical company,” he explains.

He notes that the center is also taking extraordinary efforts to bring together a multidisciplinary group of experts in a collaborative environment, including clinicians, laboratory researchers, computer scientists, biomedical engineers, chemists and others. To ensure the volume of samples necessary to perform large-scale analyses, the center will collaborate with other centers and clinics within the division and throughout UCLA, as well as seeking partnerships with institutions all over the world to share tissue samples, knowledge and technologies. Given the vast amount of data being collected, the center includes software engineers and mathematicians who will develop specialized programs to meet the data analysis needs.

“There are many important biomedical problems that can be solved only through a large infrastructure,” says Dr. Iliopoulos. “They require resources beyond what just one lab or even one center can provide. With the UCLA Center for Systems Biomedicine we are aiming big, because we believe that is the best way to tackle these problems and move more quickly toward treatments that will help patients.”