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Challenging Students to Cure Alzheimer’s Disease

A new class at the University of Arizona Health Sciences is preparing students to lead scientific discovery and is challenging them to create a drug that can help patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

Slated to begin in January 2020, “Designing Drugs: From Chemistry to Cure,” is a unique interdisciplinary class spearheaded by May Khanna, PhD, a member of the Center for Innovation in Brain Science (CIBS) and an assistant professor of pharmacology at the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson.

 “This is super exciting for the University of Arizona Health Sciences,” Dr. Khanna said. “We are bringing people together from multiple disciplines across the university, as well as entrepreneurs from the community, to challenge our students to make a difference in the world while they are still in school. This will prepare them to thrive in an environment that fuses the digital, physical and biological worlds to address health challenges.”

 The course is offered through the College of Medicine – Tucson and the College of Pharmacy and is open to undergraduate science majors and graduate students pursuing a health sciences degree. These students will also receive mentoring from a cohort of graduate students currently being trained through a T32 grant* from the National Institute on Aging. A maximum of 20 students will be enrolled in Dr. Khanna’s inaugural class, in which small teams of students will partner with a university medicinal chemist to develop their own unique drug compounds to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

During the course, students also will gain knowledge from drug-discovery experts from the University of Arizona, including the James E. Rogers College of Law, the McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship and the Honors College, as well as private pharmaceutical companies.

Students will have the opportunity to gain comprehensive knowledge — how to target a disease, how to design drugs, starting from the initial target, and how to think about advancing a drug to market.

The class will culminate with a “Shark Tank”-style competition, in which students will pitch their compounds and potential start-up companies to a panel of judges, which will include university business and law students and leaders from Tech Launch Arizona, in addition to entrepreneurial faculty members and researchers from national pharmaceutical companies.

Dr. Khanna also is committed to engaging local Tucson innovators who can provide knowledge and expertise to students as they discover the next generation of knowledge.

“This course leverages the University of Arizona’s multidisciplinary strengths and embodies the kind of transformational thinking that will engage our students and our communities to advance science and build upon our strong foundation of innovation and entrepreneurship,” said UArizona President Robert C. Robbins, MD.

The UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson and Tech Launch Arizona provided financial support to launch the course and funding for students to launch startup companies following its conclusion. Dr. Khanna has recruited a team of scientists who will serve as the board of directors for the students’ companies to help move their technology forward.

Irving Kron, MD, interim dean of the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson, said, “We want students to be inspired by this course and be motivated by the idea that science and entrepreneurship can be leveraged to create an environment of innovation that leads to medical advances and cures.”

*This research is supported by the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health under Award No: 1T32AG061897-01.

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The Center for Innovation in Brain Science (CIBS) at the University of Arizona is addressing the challenge that, in the 21st century, there is not a single cure for a single neurodegenerative disease and is focused on four age-associated neurodegenerative diseases: Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis and ALS.

© 2021 Center for Innovation Brain Science. University of Arizona Health Sciences.