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UTHSC Team Receives $1.15 Million To Develop New Anti-Seizure Treatment

Jianxiong Jiang, PhD
Jianxiong Jiang, PhD

A research project that could expand the treatment options for epilepsy has received significant federal funding. Jianxiong Jiang, PhD, associate professor in Pharmaceutical Sciences and Neurobiology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, and Wei Li, PhD, Distinguished Professor and director of the UTHSC College of Pharmacy Drug Discovery Center, were recently awarded $1.15 million from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to develop a potential new drug target to treat epileptic seizures.

The grant is also a significant milestone for UTHSC’s Office of Research, as it puts the total external dollars generated from CORNET-funded work over the $30 million mark. The CORNET Awards are a seed funding program for interdisciplinary collaborations on new research.

Dr. Jiang and Dr. Li’s work answers an urgent unmet need for safer, more effective anti-seizure therapies. Though epilepsy is one of the most common brain disorders, anti-seizure medication currently available provides only symptomatic relief and causes wide-ranging, often unbearable, side effects, with over 30% of patients responding poorly. There is no FDA-approved medication to prevent epilepsy development in at-risk people or to modify disease progression in those already diagnosed.

The project focuses on a protein that is part of a superfamily of ion channels (TRPC3) that helps regulate the epileptic brain in a highly specific manner. The team has previously patented a series of selective TRPC3 inhibitors as potential agents for new anti-seizure therapy. Their goal is to develop a lead TRPC3 inhibitor that is stable and safe, with favorable pharmacodynamic and pharmacokinetic properties. They will test its effectiveness in suppressing acute seizures, preventing epilepsy development, and improving cognitive outcomes.

Wei Li, PhD
Wei Li, PhD

“Completion of this project likely will establish a proof-of-concept for TRPC3 inhibition as a new strategy to manage epileptic seizures,” said Dr. Jiang, a neuropharmacologist dedicated to epilepsy research for nearly 15 years. Dr. Li, who leads a medicinal chemistry lab, added, “Our study will also pave the way for more extensive lead-optimization in the future, with the ultimate goal to develop a new therapy to prevent epilepsy or modify its progression.”

The project title is “Targeting TRPC3 Channels for Epileptic Seizures.” Dr. Jiang and Dr. Li are principal investigators. Julio Cordero-Morales, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Physiology, is a co-investigator.

Dr. Li was a 2016 recipient of a CORNET Award, which provided seed money to gather data used to secure this NIH grant. “The CORNET Award to this project was critical for us to jump start this work, followed by significant support from the UTHSC College of Pharmacy to both Dr. Jiang and myself to generate comprehensive preliminary data. It took a while for this project to mature due to unexpected delays, but we are happy to see this great outcome,” Dr. Li said. The CORNETs (an acronym for Collaborative Research Network) program was created by Steven Goodman, PhD, vice chancellor for Research at UTHSC, in 2016 to give collaborative research teams the initial funding they need to collect data for larger studies. Over the years, Dr. Goodman has awarded about 63 CORNETs worth a combined $2.26 million. With this latest NIH award, extramurally funded grants stemming from CORNET work total over $30.4 million, a whopping 13.45-fold return on investment.

“It is incredibly gratifying that the CORNET awards, which we created five years ago, have led to the creation of new successful collaborations across traditional boundaries, important and creative biomedical research, and at the same time has contributed over $30 million to UTHSC grants and contracts,” Dr. Goodman said. “I want to congratulate Dr. Jianxiong Jiang, Dr. Wei Li, and Dr. Julio Cordero-Morales for receiving this NIH grant award and all of the other CORNET awardees, who have contributed to UTHSC surpassing this $30 million milestone.”