New Partnership Focuses of Creating Drug to Counteract Effects of Radiation

Researchers hope to create new drug to treat radiation exposure. (File photo)
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January 12, 2018 - 6:45am

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a part of a new partnership along with the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the U.S. Department of Defense through STRATCOM to create new medications that would counteract the effect of radiation. NET News Brandon McDermott talked with Dr. David Berkowitz, one of the collaborators on the project, about the goal of the effort.

Brandon McDermott, NET News: Can you talk specifically about the importance of this project?

Dr. David Berkowitz, UNL Chemistry Professor: This is really a special opportunity for us to mesh fundamental science with biomedical science to attack a problem that most of us probably don't hear about every day called acute radiation syndrome (ARS), as you say. Which is a not so well understood malady that folks incur when they come into contact with radiation and that could be in various contexts.

McDermott: What will your role be in this project?

Dr. Berkowitz: I work collaboratively with Ken Bayles who's associate vice chancellor at UNMC and a micro biologist by training. I'm a chemical biologist here at UNL – we work collaboratively to manage this project and to build a collaboration across the two campuses -- UNL and UNMC -- including a variety of scientists who can bring their expertise to bear on this problem.

McDermott: One thing that piqued my interest in this is seeing that STRATCOM is involved in the project. Why do you think the project is important to the U.S. military?

Dr. Berkowitz: This comes through a special arrangement that we enjoy here in the state of Nebraska because we have STRATCOM here -- it's called the UARC we're one of thirteen in the United States – that's a University Affiliated Research Center and that's specifically affiliated with the U.S. military and it allows those in Washington or in leadership positions in the military to approach Nebraska directly and contract out research that they think is important to them and STRATCOM, if you will, is our card into the UARC. We are the UARC officially housed at STRATCOM. It's a privilege that we have and a special connection to military science and military funding through STRATCOM and through our privilege of being a UARC state.

McDermott: When it comes to the science -- to the research -- how realistic is this goal?

Dr. Berkowitz: This is a pie in the sky. This is a big goal. We are not afraid of ambitious goals here in Nebraska. You hear about it all the time athletically, but academically we also want to tackle big problems. So there is not currently a good small molecule drug for ARS that is FDA approved. As you can imagine, there are many other applications for such a drug that would be important to the general public. In cases of cancer, radiation therapy is often needed and so pharmaceuticals that would protect normal cells from the effects of radiation would be useful for a large set of the population for applications such as this. So the goals are much larger than ARS. Indeed that's part of the contract is to think big.

McDermott: Will this project help bridge the gap between the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska Medical Center?

Dr. Berkowitz: That is for me perhaps the most important goal of this project and I have to give a shout out to Ken Bayles who's an excellent scientist – one of the best we have in the state – and is capable of wearing an administrative hat at the same time. I have to say that's one of the big reasons that I stood up to be counted and decided to take on this new responsibility. We work very well together and we've only known each other for a short period of time even though both of us have been very active in science here – 60 miles away at important campuses of the NU system.

So we're already building that bridge just in building our relationship and I can tell you that in the first phase of this project we already have three scientists funded on this contract, two here at UNL from different departments -- one in chemistry and one of biochemistry -- and one at UNMC and we have alumni from the university as well engaged. The entire team just came back from Washington D.C. where we had an eight member Nebraska contingent – all scientists of different stripes -- Omaha and Lincoln, a current scientist, an alumni out in the private sector -- representing and working together. So, it's actually very exciting.

McDermott: Is there anything else you'd like to add before we go?

Dr. Berkowitz: I think this is the future for a state of a population under two million. If we want to maximize our potential, we need to concentrate our resources in the best possible programs we have. But if we want to do big science, I really think that building a bridge among experts on different campuses – this case UNL and UNMC – is the recipe for success and so it's ambitious but very exciting too to have a more close collaboration with our colleagues in Omaha.



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