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  Swimmer Jason Lezak ’99 will be making his third
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UCSB is Part of a Collaboration with Pharmaceutical Giant Pfizer and Other Universities to Study Diabetes in Hopes of Developing Drug Therapies that are
Right on the Mark
By Anna Davison

For decades, scientists have searched for ways of battling diabetes, but they haven’t come up with much. There’s still no cure, and as more and more people develop the potentially devastating illness, doctors are in desperate need of an arsenal of drugs to fight back.

The answer, according to UCSB alumnus Preston Hensley ’67, M.A. ’69, is to find out more about how diabetes works. To do that, Hensley, senior director in Pfizer’s Worldwide Exploratory Science and Technology group, has tapped some of the university’s best brains in science and engineering. Pfizer is funding them as part of a $14 million, three-year collaboration aimed at figuring out how cells respond to insulin, a hormone that controls how the body uses glucose, its major source of energy.

If that system falters, the result may be Type 2 diabetes, by far the most common form. Nearly 21 million people in the United States have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association, and one in three children born in 2000 will develop it during their lifetime.

Diabetes is a complex disorder, and a difficult problem for pharmaceutical companies who have been trying to develop treatments. So far they’ve only commercialized a few classes of drugs, and they don’t help about 60 percent of the people with diabetes, Hensley says.

“The drug industry is very limited by the quality of the biology that we’re using to start the (drug) discovery process,” he adds. Pharmaceutical companies have traditionally kept tabs on research coming out of universities to clue them in on molecules that could turn out to be effective drugs.

In this case, according to Leslie Edwards, director of Corporate Business Development for Science and Engineering at UCSB, Pfizer’s new approach is “to pick the hot faculty and hone them to a particular disease and learn about it from the get-go, and not just pick it up in the middle of the research process.”

“What we are doing is funding basic research,” Hensley says.

The Insulin-Resistance Pathways Project, as the consortium is known, involves UCSB’s Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies and teams at three other universities — the University of Massachusetts, Caltech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a life sciences company, Entelos, based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

For their part in the collaboration, UCSB scientists, led by Frank Doyle, professor of chemical engineering and associate director of the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies, will develop mathematical models of how the body responds to insulin. They’ll start by looking at the process in fat cells, and then, if that’s successful, move on to other insulin-sensitive tissues like liver and muscle.

By figuring out the complexities of the body’s response to insulin, Hensley hopes the researchers can identify processes that could be tweaked by drugs as a treatment for diabetes. They’ll narrow a list of dozens of these potential targets down to about 10 and figure out what drugs to aim at them. Hensley is confident “we’ll come up with entirely new medicines.”

Pfizer’s involvement with UCSB is born of a fortuitous series of encounters Hensley had when he reconnected with the university, where he obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology, specializing in protein chemistry, and played football.

“Part of it is luck of the draw and the value of bringing alumni back to campus,” he says,  “and part of it is what you see when you get back there. … “The magic was getting the people together and the link was the Alumni Association.”

Hensley is based on the East Coast, where Pfizer centers its efforts on diabetes and obesity, which are closely linked. A couple of years ago, during a visit to Santa Barbara, he got to talking with some fellow alumni athletes about their time at the campus and “we realized how important those years were. It was time for us to give back.” They founded the Gaucho Athletics Association to support the heritage and tradition of UCSB athletics, and Hensley began visiting the campus more regularly.

After talking with then-Dean of Science Martin Moskovits and other UCSB researchers, Hensley decided that scientists in Santa Barbara could offer Pfizer something the company lacked – research on the basic biology of diabetes. He brought a group from Pfizer to the campus in the spring of last year, and “what we saw was world-class,” Hensley says. “There’s something really amazing going on at UCSB.”

By December, Hensley had finalized the collaboration, which is different to the common work-for-hire arrangements in which pharmaceutical companies pay university scientists for research and get the rights to their results.

In this case, Pfizer is funding the work, but researchers in Santa Barbara have the right to patent any discoveries they make – an arrangement that works much like federally funded research programs. But unlike work paid for by agencies like the National Institutes of Health, Hensley says the partnership encourages collaboration between UCSB researchers in different departments – a particularly valuable approach when working on a complex condition like diabetes.

“It enables a kind of science to be done that would be difficult, if not impossible, otherwise,” Hensley says. “We can’t wait for the National Institutes of Health to figure it out, we have to go to researchers to get the answers.” Pfizer, Edwards says, has essentially told scientists involved in the project to “do what you normally do. We’ll give you a lot more money and we’re going to pay for you to meet quarterly.”

For students, the Pfizer connection offers an education on how the science they’re learning is translated into real world solutions: drugs that could change, or perhaps save, millions of lives. “There’s an emotion about working in a profession whose end point is the relief of pain and suffering that’s very satisfying,” Hensley says.

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