Charles McKenna, professor and chair of chemistry at USC College, has received a Partner University Fund award enabling him to develop a new type of male contraceptive drug with researchers in France.
Of 78 proposals, McKenna’s project was among 12 selected for the three-year funding. Other Partner University Fund laureates included researchers from Northwestern, Cornell and Princeton universities, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Beginning in July, McKenna and his team will begin working with researchers at the Institute for Structural Biology Jean-Pierre Ebel and the Institut Albert Bonniot, both located in Grenoble. Aided by the fund’s $200,000 award, the teams aim to create a novel contraceptive drug for ultimate commercial use, based on structural analysis of Brdt — a testis-specific protein that plays an important role during sperm development.
With the McKenna team’s expertise in medicinal chemistry and the French teams’ interest in structural biology, the research will meet at the interface of chemistry and biology. Researchers will visit each other’s institutions during the collaboration and conduct regular video conferences via iChat and Skype.
“The fact that we’re separated by 6,000 miles is no longer a major factor,” said McKenna, who recently was awarded the USC Provost’s Prize for Teaching With Technology. The prize recognizes faculty achievements in teaching and learning through the integration of technology into courses and curricula.
“What’s so exciting about this is that we’ll be engaging in a kind of collaboration that typically would be done with the Department of Biology or the Keck School of Medicine at USC,” he said. “But these biologists happen to be in Europe.”
The main French partner will be the Institute for Structural Biology, led by Carlo Petosa, an expert in structural biology and protein biochemistry who has two other drug discovery projects ongoing.
Grenoble is emerging as one of Europe’s most important centers of nanochemistry and nanobiology research, McKenna said.
“At USC, the general impetus has been to globalize research,” McKenna said. “The emphasis has been mainly on the Pacific Rim. But there are also great research opportunities in Europe at this time, and we should take advantage of this.”
In the past, the French educational and grant systems were very different from American institutions such as USC. But recently, France is undergoing a series of educational reforms, and their grant system is becoming more compatible with USC’s, easing the way for collaborations.
Perfectly fluent in French, McKenna has worked closely with researchers in France. He earned his B.A. in French literature (with honors) at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.
He learned about the Partner University Fund opportunity during an �gide Foundation-sponsored trip to France last fall. Mireille Guyader, the scientific attach� for the Consulate General of France in Los Angeles, encouraged McKenna to apply for the award.
“He speaks French and also writes in French fluently and was looking for a partner in biotechnical sciences,” Guyader said of McKenna. “That to me was a perfect fit for the program. This is not a research-only program; it includes an educational component. Their project involves a significant number of students.”
McKenna’s team will consist of four or five postdoctoral and graduate student researchers. Distance learning technologies will be used to offer seminars from one partner institution to the other.
Biology students in France will be exposed to advanced techniques in inhibitor design and molecular modeling, and may participate in the chemistry department’s Interdisciplinary Program in Drug Discovery based at the College. That program involves more than 25 Ph.D. students at the College and the USC School of Pharmacy who will benefit from the joint seminar programs.
An inventor on nearly 20 chemistry patents — one of which became the basis for founding what is a now publicly owned drug development startup company — McKenna is also chair of the College’s Department of Chemistry. In addition to benefiting his own research, McKenna expects the collaboration to strengthen ties between his department and the two French institutions. The partnership may encourage graduate students in France to study at USC College. Conversely, USC postdoctoral students may receive special training in France.
The Partner University Fund was established in May 2007 under the auspices of the French American Cultural Exchange Foundation. With private donations and contributions from the French government, the fund launched its first call for projects in September 2007 with the objective of supporting innovative and sustainable partnerships between French and U.S. institutions of research and higher education.
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