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NIH Project Encourages Researchers To Find New Uses for Old Drugs

On Thursday, NIH announced a new initiative aiming to encourage researchers to find new uses for old drugs that failed to treat one disease but might be effective for another, the AP/San Francisco Chronicle reports (Neergaard, AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 5/3).

Under the Discovering New Therapeutic Uses for Existing Molecules pilot program, the agency's National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences will partner with AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly and Pfizer (Zigmond, Modern Healthcare, 5/3).

The drugmakers will make about 20 compounds available to biomedical researchers from universities, hospitals and NIH.

Researchers who find a promising use for a drug will apply for a grant from NIH, which has allocated $20 million for the program in fiscal year 2013. The drugmaker can retain ownership of the medication, but researchers will have patent rights for any new uses of the compound (Burton, Wall Street Journal, 5/3).

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said, "The goal is simple: to see whether we can teach an old drug new tricks."

NIH Director Francis Collins said there are many examples of medications originally meant to treat one disease being repurposed for another. For example, azidothymidine, or AZT, was approved to treat cancer in the 1960s but was abandoned for lack of efficacy (Steenhuysen/Yukhananov, Reuters, 5/3). More than 20 years later it became the first effective treatment for HIV. Prior discoveries "all have been sort of serendipitous," Collins said, adding, "The idea here is, let's not depend on serendipity" (AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 5/3).

AstraZeneca Vice President Donald Frail said that the company has received 100 research proposals from 37 institutions through a similar program that began in December 2011 with England's Medical Research Council (Wall Street Journal, 5/3).

FDA Says Drug Shortages Down

In related news, the number of new shortages of critical drugs to treat cancer and other illnesses has fallen by more than 50% compared with last year, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said on Thursday, Reuters reports.

In 2012, there have been 42 new shortages, compared with 90 during the same period last year. The agency said early notice from drugmakers about potential supply issues has helped prevent 128 shortages since October 2011.

Hamburg said shortages of certain drugs -- including the childhood leukemia drug leucovorin and fentanyl, which is used in anesthesia -- are still persistent, and FDA is working with drugmakers to resolve the issue (Yukhananov, Reuters, 5/3).

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