Ready to Discover

Coming together to formulate new drug compounds at the UA

Summer 2019

When it comes to pursuing drug discovery at the University of Arizona, “Everything is finally aligned,” says Rick G. Schnellmann, dean of the College of Pharmacy.

John Musil ’94 recently made a gift to create the Musil Family Endowed Chair in Drug Discovery. The family’s generosity builds on significant momentum the college began with the help of its supporters and collaborators. 

The expansion and renovation of one of the college’s homes in Tucson, the Skaggs Pharmaceutical Sciences Center, will be complete early next year. With a new addition dedicated to drug discovery, the modernized building will double the college’s research capacity over the next 10 years.

A photograph of arrows pointing at a building, a microscope, a chair, another large building and a honeycomb-like grid filled with scientific illustrations

“We didn’t have enough of the right space for years,” Schnellmann says.

The College of Pharmacy also took a major step forward last year by creating the Arizona Center for Drug Discovery, or ACDD, in partnership with collaborators from across the Tucson and Phoenix campuses. The center creates the infrastructure to bring UA researchers from diverse fields together and accelerate their efforts to make new drugs available to patients.

New Expertise

“John Musil is a member of the college’s National Advisory Board. Since my arrival as dean, he has been a resource to the board, to our students, and to me. He continues to be an involved and informed alumnus,” 
says Schnellmann.

After graduating from the UA with a PharmD degree, Musil founded The Apothecary Shops, now Avella Specialty Pharmacy. Avella is headquartered in Phoenix and has facilities in eight states. Some of the company’s early growth came through bringing stronger communication and partnerships to patient care, Musil says.

Musil developed close relationships with physicians and hired more pharmacists with clinical expertise who could communicate well with both doctors and patients. It’s this level of collaboration that Musil hopes the new chair will bring to drug discovery efforts for the College of Pharmacy and the UA. 

“It would be great to have someone who could engage with the public and with drug discovery colleagues worldwide,” Musil says.

Another goal of Musil’s is to influence pharmacy graduates.

“I’d like to inspire my fellow alumni to donate to the college and assist its efforts in bringing in renowned researchers with new expertise and ideas to advance the college,” he says.

College leadership will soon begin recruiting to fill the position. The new chair will add to the efforts of UA researchers, who are prepared to go after new opportunities and discoveries as well as continue their work to discover new drugs for cancer and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

“There are no therapies for devastating neurodegenerative diseases. We need to do something, so that’s one area we are focusing on,” Schnellmann says.

A Way Forward at an Opportune Time

A major goal in establishing the ACDD is to help build partnerships with pharmaceutical companies and UA researchers. These partnerships enable UA researchers to discover new drug targets and lead compounds and help them navigate the rigorous process of taking drugs to market. Corporate sponsorship is key to advancing findings beyond the laboratory and through the stages of clinical trials. 

“One of the reasons the university and the college are investing in this area now is that the pharmaceutical industry has created more opportunities for academia at the discovery stage,” says Wei Wang, who joined the college last year as a professor and director of the drug discovery program.

“The bigger companies used to do their own discovery and development. That has changed markedly in the past five years,” Wang says.

However, the process is prolonged and full of risk.

“Starting from scratch, it generally takes at least 10 years to bring a new drug to market, at a cost of at least $1.5 billion,” Wang says.

The UA is poised to step up because it has researchers with expertise not only in pharmaceutical sciences but also in chemistry, biology, medicine and fields like biomedical engineering and optical sciences that align closely with drug research. What the university lacked before the ACDD was a systematic way to coordinate their efforts.

“By aligning drug discovery researchers, we can increase synergy, come up with more new ideas, and do a better job in general,” Schnellmann says. 

“It’s important to move drug discovery forward, because the need doesn’t stop.” 


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