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NIH funds effort to resurrect abandoned drugs for new uses

The most visible project of the new translational medicine centre at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) came a little closer to reality today, with the announcement of nine awards that pair academic scientists with compounds cast off by the pharmaceutical industry.  The aim of the plainly named Discovering New Therapeutic Uses for Existing Molecules programme is to re-employ abandoned drugs for new uses — and in the process, show Congress that NIH’s youngest centre is delivering for the US taxpayer.

The fledgling National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) says that it will oversee the spending of US$12.7 million on the ambitious projects, which aim to produce treatments for ailments including Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, alcoholism and calcified heart valves. As Nature wrote last October, the awardees have their work cut out for them: all the compounds, donated by big pharmaceutical firms, have been shown to be safe in humans but were discarded for lack of effectiveness against their original targets or for business reasons.

The drugs for the just-announced projects come from AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly, Janssen Research and Development, Pfizer and Sanofi.

NCATS director Christopher Austin (profiled recently in Nature) called the announcement of the awards a “major milestone”. The compounds involved may not have made for “the best business case”, says Austin, who once worked in drug discovery at Merck, but “these [new] indications may be fantastic for patients and public health”.

But John La Mattina, Pfizer’s former research chief, suggests that the programme may not produce many new applications for abandoned drugs.  “I do hope that people can have success in this type of work,” he writes in a Forbes blog post. “But I believe successes are going to be rare.”

This type of drug resurrection effort clearly has appeal beyond US shores; last year, the UK Medical Research Council and AstraZeneca made awards in a similar programme.

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