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Up Close with Gunda Georg

Photo of Gunda Georg

Renowned medicinal chemist Gunda Georg came to the U of M from Kansas in 2007 to found the 40-member-strong Institute for Therapeutics Discovery and Development in the College of Pharmacy. Part of her reason for heading north to discover new drugs was, "It's so ready-made here for collaborations," pointing to the world-class medical and research centers just steps from her lab. Legacy puts the holder of the Robert Vince Endowed Chair and the McKnight Presidential Chair in Medicinal Chemistry under the microscope.

Where do you start when creating new drugs?

The process always starts with discovery. In diseases you have biochemical processes that are not properly conducted. We mimic the biochemical process of a disease state, and then we test a quarter of a million compounds in an assay. We want to find out if chemical compounds can be used to interfere with pathological processes: in cancer, for example, to perturb the process that sends growth signals that creates tumors. What we do is unique in the academic environment.

Why is it unique?

The business model of drug discovery is changing. In the past, big pharmaceutical companies have done all of the drug discovery, the development, and the overseeing of clinical trials within their walls. But that process has become so expensive that they can no longer sustain it. The big companies are relying more and more on in-licensing from smaller biotech companies and also from the academic world. We at the University of Minnesota want to be part of that opportunity, to be part of the future of drug therapeutics.

Why do this work in an academic setting?

Now that our institute is here we are out talking to colleagues and its opening up collaborative opportunities within the University. When we work together it may lead to new drugs, but it could also lead to basic scientific discoveries. Our colleagues get our compounds and experiment with them. It's a biochemical tool. We can do projects that cannot be done as easily in companies. We take a different approach. We have the luxury to really understand a system and conduct a lot of research around it. Our work does not have to be a product in the end. It's great if we can achieve that, but if we gain knowledge, that's a value in itself. We can also take on 'orphan projects' that target diseases only a small number of people have, which are projects industry might be less likely to tackle. Finally, we are able to educate our students a lot better. We can prepare graduates in an environment that uses all the excellent tools that are usually used in the pharmaceutical industry.

Any examples of recent collaborations?

With Dr. Ashok Saluja and Dr. Selwyn Vickers in the Department of Surgery, we have created a compound that we've nicknamed 'Minnelide.' It's a modification of a natural product called triptolide, isolated from a plant used in Chinese traditional medicine. Dr. Saluja was looking for compounds that could reduce the expression of a particular protein in pancreatic cancer. I recommended we take a closer look at triptolide because I'm interested in natural products and we knew of its excellent anti-cancer activity. But I also knew that it had problems with water solubility, which is a big issue with drugs because they need to dissolve and be absorbed in the body. So I decided to make what's called a pro-drug. This is a drug with a temporary chemical modification to improve its pharmaceutical properties. My former graduate student Dr. Satish Patil then modified triptolide so that, when it's injected into the body, a highly active compound is released. That modification made it qualify for a patent, which we have applied for. Many U of M colleagues are now involved in helping to bring Minnelide to clinical trial in patients.

How did your interest in natural products develop?

I'm originally from Germany and my first degree is in pharmacy, where I learned how many of our drugs come from nature–morphine and aspirin, for instance. It's intriguing to think that plants played a role in how pharmacy started. We've now gone a lot further, but natural products are still important to drug discovery.

What brought you to this country?

I first came to the U.S. in the 1980s because of the opportunities to do things that would have been more difficult in my native Germany. At the time—and still maybe today—it was not so easy for women in science. There was more openness here. I think the scientific community in the United States is just so exciting. It may be partly due to the fact that science is well supported here. Private support for universities is almost unheard of in Germany. They envy us. They would love to have more philanthropic support but it's not really part of the culture there.

Is there a story behind that mug on your desk?

One of our staff members recently relocated to New York. The story is that after my initial job interview with her four years ago she went home and found an article about me on the Internet. In it, I said, "Molecular science is the last frontier." She remembered that and when she left she gave me this coffee mug with those words inscribed on it. I still believe it, too.