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Making Plans: Scripps Florida Screening Center Expands Its Collaborations

By Eric Sauter

It helps to have a plan, which helps explain how Louis Scampavia and Timothy Spicer, who run Scripps Florida’s high-throughput screening (HTS) operations, have expanded collaborations in the state and around the world.

Take for example, their latest collaboration with Jin Shouguang, a professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at the University of Florida. The Scripps Florida team is working with him to screen for compounds that could help fight resistance against antibiotics that treat Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a serious infection affecting immunocompromised patients and, surprisingly, returning war vets because of its stubborn capacity to infect wounds.

Spicer, a TSRI assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Therapeutics, explained how the collaboration came about.

“I had to travel to the University of Florida to pick up my daughter for Thanksgiving last year,” he said. “I thought, ‘Why not reach out to somebody while I’m there?’ As it turned out, I was asked to do a talk on what we do at Scripps Florida HTS. When I finished, Jin Shouguang came up and asked if we wanted to get involved in his research. Six months later we put together the proposal to help him transfer his screening assays to Jupiter, and the result is we’re about to start a full screening program.”

Working together, Shouguang, Spicer and Scampavia won a highly competitive two-year grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for more than a quarter-million dollars—with the strong possibility that the funding could be extended another three years.

Looking for New Treatments

HTS at Scripps Florida has been a prized resource within the Jupiter campus. For many years it was part of the NIH-funded Molecular Libraries Probe Production Centers Network (MLPCN), where Scripps Florida was one of just four such centers in the country. The goal of the network was to uncover "proof-of-concept molecules" that could be useful as probes to elucidate and control disease pathways or in the development of new treatments for a large number of human diseases.

“We need to translate basic discoveries into something people can actually use,” Scampavia said. “Our focus is always on translation—how to improve the health of patients.”

And Scripps Florida made an outsized contribution to that goal as part of the MLPCN, contributing to 14 of 18 licenses that resulted from the program.

Today, Spicer noted, Scripps Florida’s HTS is playing a major role in the development of the active and growing research community within the state of Florida.

“There is an attempt to reach out to create cross-collaborative efforts and we try to be good at that,” he said. Partners have included the University of Miami, Florida Atlantic University, the Moffitt Center in Tampa, Torrey Pines in Port St. Lucie, the University of South Florida and now the University of Florida.

Spicer says reaching out versus being approached by other scientists is pretty much a 50-50 proposition, but the tide continues to move in their direction simply because a number of universities and biotechnology companies have come to recognize the high level of work they do. Working with Scripps Florida’s HTS Center also makes economic sense—why develop a high throughput-screening core yourself when there’s a such a good one just up the road?

“We take a business-like approach to these studies,” Scampavia said, who notes their approach has been influenced by others in the Scripps Florida Department of Molecular Therapeutics (such as Professors Pat Griffin and Phil LoGrasso), who come from an industry background. “We communicate well and provide clear and quantifiable metrics to our collaborators. This is why a lot of the pharmaceutical companies like working with us, absolutely. There’s a lot of rigor to what we do and how we do it.”

Word of Mouth

That business-like approach has led to a dramatic increase in the amount of collaborations with private companies—work that by its very nature is hardly ever publicized. During the MPLCN days, those collaborations made up about a quarter of the HTS activity. Now that number is closer to 50 percent and much of that growth has been organic.

The relationship with Takeda-Envoy is a good example. Envoy originally came to Scripps Florida to help identify potential new compounds for neurological and psychiatric diseases. After a number of breakthrough identifications were made, Envoy was bought up by Takeda, Japan’s largest pharmaceutical company, for $140 million.

But these collaborations didn’t end there. In fact, they have continued to expand and, because of that success, both Spicer and Scampavia expect more work to come from other Pacific Rim companies.

“Private companies seek us out through word of mouth,” Spicer said. “We don’t have any active way of promoting ourselves, we’re not a contract research organization. We go to Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening meetings and just being there, doing talks, works quite well to get the word out. Hugh Rosen in La Jolla will sometimes send us contacts, so will Ben Cravatt. A lot of it is like getting a job. It’s networking.”

And they have room to grow.

“We could conceivably screen 24/7,” Scampavia said. “We don’t have the people to do that right now, but we could certainly grow well beyond what we do today.”

Especially if Spicer and Scampavia keep making plans.

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“Our focus is always on translation—how to improve the health of patients,” says Associate Professor Louis Scampavia (right), who runs Scripps Florida’s High-Throughput Screening Center with Assistant Professor Timothy Spicer. (Photo by Eric Sauter.)