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Brian Blagg, associate professor of medicinal chemistry, teaches a class at the School of Pharmacy. Blagg was recently honored for his research by the American Chemical Society.

Blagg honored by American Chemical Society

Medicinal chemistry professor noted for research

For his pioneering work on potential treatments for cancer and other diseases, a KU professor has earned one of the top accolades bestowed upon medicinal chemists.

The Division of Medicinal Chemistry of the American Chemical Society awarded the 2009 David W. Robertson Memorial Award to Brian S. J. Blagg, associate professor of medicinal chemistry. The prize, sponsored by the Pfizer Endowment Fund, is given annually to “scientists under the age of 40 who have made seminal contributions to the discovery of novel therapeutic agents, or who have made substantial contributions and discoveries in medicinal chemistry.”

The society acknowledged Blagg for his work to create inhibitors of a protein called Hsp90 that have promise as cancer fighters. Because Hsp90 folds other proteins and helps them to achieve their correct three-dimensional shape, hindering the process can obstruct the constant proliferation of cancer cells.

“Cancer cells continually grow and as a result depend on Hsp90 more so than normal cells to allow continuous growth,” said Blagg. “When one inhibits Hsp90, it prevents the folding of multiple proteins that are essential to cell growth. The net effect is similar to the administration of multiple drugs to fight cancer, but in our case only one drug is needed and affects multiple targets simultaneously.”

Blagg and his colleagues also are advancing preclinical development of related compounds shown to be successful in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“In contrast to cancer, in which we want to halt the folding of proteins that allow for cell growth, in neurodegenerative diseases we want to refold proteins that have accumulated into plaques,” Blagg said.

The KU researcher stressed the importance of a team effort that advanced understanding of Hsp90, citing the 15 or so scientists active in his group.

“It is an honor to receive the Robertson award,” Blagg said. “Professionally, the award acknowledges the contributions made by my group members and collaborators who aim to understand a new target for cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. Without their assistance and, in many cases, their guidance, we would not have been able to make these contributions to science.”

Blagg’s acclaimed research, along with the work of other medicinal chemistry faculty, are key assets to the KU Cancer Center in its goal of winning designation as a Comprehensive Cancer Center from the National Cancer Institute. The work on Hsp90 is another example of “bench to bedside” drug development, where disease-fighting chemical elements can be discovered, improved and taken to clinical trial — all within the KU pipeline.

“A number of collaborators both at the Lawrence campus and at the medical center are involved in the development of these compounds so that one day they may become clinically used anti-cancer drugs,” Blagg said. “Currently we’re working toward the preclinical development of these compounds in an effort to support the cancer center’s mission of developing drugs from bench to bedside.”

Blagg will accept his award in August in Washington, D.C. — along with a $1,000 honorarium and a plaque — at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society.

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