Drug discovery

31 July 2011
Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery
Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery

In a previous life, after completing registration as a medical doctor in the 1980s, Professor Rod Dunbar wrote musical plays for professional production. His ability to pull together actors, writers and musicians to create a successful stage show translates easily into his current mission to get scientists from different disciplines collaborating to create new drugs and vaccines.

Rod is director of the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery (MWC), a centre for research excellence based at the University of Auckland.

“New Zealanders are very good at cutting edge, frontier science,” he says. “We have strong skills in biomedicine but too many of our lead investigators have had to be lone pioneers – single-handedly hacking into the bush to make pasture. Innovation can both rise and fall with isolated leaders. We can now do much better as a nation by pooling our talents.”

And that’s exactly what the Maurice Wilkins Centre, named after the New Zealand-born physicist and Nobel laureate, is doing under Rod’s leadership. More than 100 top scientists from traditionally separate disciplines, backed by the early career scientists and graduate students they are training, are working together to create new drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tools for cancer, diabetes and infectious diseases.

“For example, to design a new cancer drug we’ve always needed biologists who can study the cells in a tumor and how they behave right down to the molecules. Now we get chemists who are designing the drug to understand the biologists and vice versa. They both then go to computer scientists to see how a drug works using a computer model.”

Rod’s own work in human immunology is typical of the centre’s approach. His research group of 18 people is developing a vaccine that will stimulate T-cells in the body to fight melanoma. Working with other MWC partners – medicinal chemist Professor Margaret Brimble and scientists at Industrial Research Limited – Rod’s team is developing a vaccine that will be put into human trials by the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research in Wellington.

One of the most successful MWC-funded projects so far is the spinout company Pathway Therapeutics, founded by University biologists and chemists, which has just received approval from the US Food and Drug Administration to begin clinical trials for its drug PWT33597. This is a dual inhibitor of two key molecules implicated in cancer tumors and is the first drug with this biological profile to enter clinical trials.

“It is an indication of the strength of drug discovery in this country,” says Rod, “and a very tangible example of the value of interdisciplinary collaboration in tackling complex scientific problems.”

As director of the MWC, he is keen to see leading biologists and drug developers pass on their knowledge to mid-career and young researchers. “In traditional science the world is divided into strict disciplines. If you train students in those strict disciplines you can miss out on a whole lot of innovation. We want our biomedical science to keep expanding.

“If we can inspire people to get together in new combinations then we’ll spark the really exciting new ideas that are risky, edgy and difficult but are also those most likely to lead to major advances in human health.”