MGH/Winthrop lab speeds agent R&D

August 12, 1992

Pharmaceutical company Sterling Winthrop and researchers at MassachusettsGeneral Hospital have moved their joint contrast development effortinto high gear. The cooperative venture should broaden the applicationsof medical imaging in drug research, both

Pharmaceutical company Sterling Winthrop and researchers at MassachusettsGeneral Hospital have moved their joint contrast development effortinto high gear. The cooperative venture should broaden the applicationsof medical imaging in drug research, both within and beyond contrastR&D.

The Center for Imaging and Pharmaceutical Research, or CIPR,was officially opened at MGH in May. New York-based Sterling Winthropfunded a grant of at least $21 million over the next seven years.Sterling originally pledged $18 million over six years when theagreement was signed two years ago (SCAN 8/15/90).

The center's mission is to use medical imaging to speed developmentof both therapeutic and diagnostic agents. Medical imaging isa tool that has only begun to demonstrate its utility in drugresearch, according to Dr. Gerald L. Wolf, CIPR director.

"Imaging, being noninvasive and nondestructive for themost part, is a great way to do research on biological things,"Wolf told SCAN. "You can do repeated studies on the samesubject, and repeated studies on the same subject dramaticallyreduce biological variability."

A conventional study of a drug to prevent heart attacks, forexample, would sample a large number of patients and follow themfor years to determine the safety and efficacy of the drug. Medicalimaging, on the other hand, would allow researchers to get informationabout the drug's effects more quickly and with a smaller samplesize.

"The very same thing that's attractive to referring physiciansand patients--imaging to reach a conclusion--turns out to be justas useful to people who are trying to study new drugs," Wolfsaid.

Initial research at CIPR has focused on developing contrastagents, a priority for Sterling Winthrop. The company sends promisingmaterial to CIPR, where the staff has developed efficient screeningmethods for determining which agents merit further study.

Agents that show potential are examined in animal imaging studies.After two or three such studies, the center can determine theefficacy of a compound and whether it is worthwhile to continuedevelopment, Wolf said.

"That turns out to be very powerful for industry, becausethe earlier they identify a molecule that's going to fail, themore resources they save to focus on one that has a better shot,"he said.

Wolf estimates that CIPR researchers have screened 200 potentialcontrast agents in less than a year. The researchers were workingat MGH until the center's own lab officially opened.

Results of some of the center's research will be unveiled atthis year's Radiological Society of North America conference,Wolf said.

THE CROWN JEWEL OF CIPR is a hybrid CT/angio interventional unitdesigned by Toshiba especially for the center. Although the deviceis experimental and not ready for use with humans, Wolf believesit could ultimately revolutionize cancer diagnosis and treatment.

"We can do either procedure without having to move thesubject," he said. "With contrast agents, for instance,we believe that we will be able to stage cancer and begin treatmenton the table."

In addition to their own imaging equipment, CIPR researcherswill have access to a full array of imaging technology at adjacentMGH East, including SPECT, PET and several high-field MRI scannersdesigned specifically for animal research.

Sterling Winthrop retains licensing rights to any drugs developedfrom molecules it provides to CIPR. The center is allowed to workwith other pharmaceutical companies, but has agreed to refrainfrom conducting research on products from other sponsors thatconflict with research based on products Sterling Winthrop hasprovided.

Sterling Winthrop sees the partnership with CIPR as helpingthe company improve its position in imaging agents by increasingthe number of compounds it can investigate. The alliance willalso boost the speed at which those compounds can be taken fromthe lab to the market, said David Marcou, a Sterling Winthropspokesperson.

"Getting drugs to market faster is everyone's goal,"Marcou said. "That's what we're trying to do by (means of)additional research. With CIPR, we have more chances of gettingit done quicker."

Sterling Winthrop is awaiting FDA approval for Omniscan (SCAN6/3/92), a nonionic gadolinium MRI agent the company has licensedfrom Nycomed.

Wolf acknowledges that CIPR's close ties to industry couldengender skepticism of their research from academics. But workingwith industry is in many respects pragmatic, he said.

"The people who have the things that are worth testingor need testing are industry, and the people who have the knowledgeand the tools to test them are hospitals and universities,"Wolf said. "So it turns out that we must learn how to worktogether."