By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Since its founding in 1941, Southern Research has become widely recognized as a leader in contract research services in a variety of highly technical industry sectors. On Wednesday, August 13, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) toured Birmingham’s Southern Research Institute (SRI) with SRI President and Chief Executive Officer Arthur J. Tipton, PhD and other SRI executives.
One of the laboratories that Governors Christie and Bentley toured was the High-Throughput Screening (HTS) Center Laboratory. Long time HTS Center Laboratory Director Lucile White led the Governors through the lab.
The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department at SRI has twelve senior staff members, including White, who have basic research programs in various aspects of drug discovery. Currently, most of the research in the department is focused in three primary disease areas: cancer, infectious diseases, and CNS/neurological diseases.
Former Director White said that the multi-million dollar HTS Center is able to test up to 100,000 compounds a day and to four million compounds a year.
Much of the work in drug development involves testing a compound against a virus, bacteria, or other pathogen. For decades this has been a slow tedious job performed by lab technicians who pipette a substance to the pathogen.
The current lab manager of the High Throughput Screening Center Lab is Lynn Rasmussen. Rasmussen said that the lab uses three high tech state of the art robots to do the work that lab techs used to do, but they do it much faster and much more precisely, “We like robots because they do the work that people don’t like to do and they don’t get carpal tunnel.”
Lucile White said that the HTS Center is more high tech than what many pharmaceutical companies have. White said, “Rarely do we get the exact drug out of this but this is the starting point.”
One of the robots is inside a special bio-containment box. It works primarily with things that could pose a potential for a bio-hazard such as the West Nile virus. White said that the robots were designed specifically for SRI and the HTS Center.
Gov. Bentley asked about the Ebola Virus. White said that the SRI is working on finding treatments for Ebola with other researchers but all of that lab work is done by great people at a lab in Texas.
CEO Tipton said that SRI is halfway between academia and private industry. SRI works closely with academic institutions, especially the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) to advance their research. When something that SRI is working on appears to be a possible cure or treatment SRI brings that to the pharmaceutical companies for the expensive drug trial process.
According to a research paper by Rasmussen, White, et al SRI s able to using frozen virus infected cells as the source of infectious material to overcome the problem of virus instability and validated a cell-based high-throughput screening assay to screen for inhibitors of the virus.
That particular work was done on the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), from the family Paramyxoviridae, which is most often associated with bronchitis and pneumonia, but the methodology has application for a variety of viruses and other pathogens.
According to their web site Southern Research is a self-sustaining contract research organization and an incorporated affiliate of The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). SRI and UAB have a shared belief in the power and potential of collaborative research. Southern Research and UAB have long-standing relationships in areas such as materials engineering, high-performance computing, breast cancer research, glial biology, cystic fibrosis research, and gene therapy.
According to the website much of the research in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department at SRI is primarily supported by basic research grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, although a significant portion of the research is supported by government and commercial contracts.
Southern Research has discovered more than 20 drugs that have entered clinical trials and seven drugs that have been approved by the FDA for use in the treatment of cancer. No other organization has produced so many. Another seven drug candidates are currently in late-stage preclinical development or have advanced into clinical trials. Among their commercial successes SRI scientists developed and patented the method for manufacturing Methotrexate which is currently used to treat cancer and rheumatoid arthritis.
Following the tour, the two GOP Governors spoke to reporters in SRI’s courtyard. The Alabama Political Reporter was there to cover all of the event.
Gov. Christie also appeared with Gov. Bentley at a fundraiser for the Bentley re-election campaign and attended an event to raise money for the Republican Governor’s Association.