Nature Medicine | Spoonful of Medicine

Nonprofit disease groups earmark grants for drug repositioning

By Elie Dolgin

Prompted by the low success rates and high costs of drug development, pharmaceutical companies have increasingly turned to drug repositioning, also known as repurposing, to refurbish dwindling product pipelines—but the trend has spilled beyond industry. With an increasing academic focus on translational medicine, nonprofit research organizations are also looking to encourage new uses for old drugs, and some are earmarking money specifically for the effort.

“Certainly, this is an area that seems ripe for some further investigation,” Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, told Nature Medicine.

Although the NIH has yet to formally launch any drug repositioning–specific grant schemes, some nonprofit organizations and academic institutions already have. In late July, for example, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (MJFF) announced the recipients of its first awards designated specifically for repositioning studies. Five of the six projects, funded for a total of $2.4 million, will take drugs originally developed for a range of ailments, including tuberculosis, depression and diabetes, and test them in animal and cellular models of Parkinson’s disease. The sixth grant will fund a human trial of a pupil-dilating eye drug called tropicamide to treat uncontrolled drooling in people with Parkinson’s.

“That concept of repurposing a drug is a really powerful one,” says Brian Fiske, director of research programs at the New York–based MJFF. “It really just speaks to our broader mission, which is to push treatments to the clinic and to accelerate the whole process.”

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