According to his lab’s web page, biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences assistant professor Danny Xu’s goal is “enabling biomedical discovery and addressing unmet medical needs using
State-of-the-art computational, informatics, data mining, and machine learning technologies.”
The most recent manifestation of that goal has been with the publication of Xu and his team of graduate, undergraduate and professional PharmD students’ findings on the use of secondary medications to mitigate the toxicity of primary drugs.
Xu said he wanted to focus on reducing drug toxicity because, as a professor in pharmacy, he believes it is a topic that’s necessary to approach.
“We teach drug actions and drug toxicity, so when students go out and become pharmacists, they will be able to help their patients safely and correctly,” he said.
Specifically, Xu and his team have focused on the effects of metoclopramide, or MCP, a drug used to treat heartburn and gastroparesis. According to Xu, once the drug enters the brain, it can interact with the dopamine receptors and suppress their actions.
“There’s a delicate balance between the two neurotransmitters in the brain,” Xu said. “And if the drug throws off that balance, patients may develop involuntary movement in their face.”
This movement is caused by the disorder tardive dyskinesia, commonly known as TD, and the risk of developing it is high enough that the FDA has placed a “black box warning” on MCP.
Xu and his team used computational techniques as well as clinical databases to identify a possible second drug, which Xu said when taken with MCP may mitigate its effects. The possible use of these drugs, fentanyl and loperamide, were discovered by combing through the bioactivity database, which records all published bioactivity in the world, and the FDA Adverse Events Reporting System.
Xu said the data mining was done primarily by the professional PharmD students, as that is what they are trained to do in their professional and clinical training.
“Most professional clinical students aren’t involved in research because it’s not required for them to graduate,” Xu said. “But we try to encourage them to become involved in research that matches their interest and expertise.”
He added that he assigns students research based on their own individual areas of strength. He stated that the one undergraduate student involved with the research was a computer science major and completed much of the computational methods.
“Nobody is good at everything,” Xu said. “So I try to identify students’ strengths and weaknesses and leverage their strengths into the research process.”
And according to Xu, this particular research is unusual in the number of professional PharmD students involved.
“I’m not claiming this is the first ever paper that involves professional and clinical students at ISU, but this is one of the first original research publications that involves multiple current professional pharmacy students,” he said. “Students can see this and think, ‘maybe I’ll give research a try,’ and that will be a significant change at ISU.”
In addition to attracting more student researchers, Xu said research like this could also attract external funding to carry out similar research and expand research opportunities at ISU.
The team’s research was published in the online journal EBioMedicine and received the best research poster award at the Mountain West Clinical and Translational Research Annual Conference, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.
Xu acknowledged, however, that the research is simply the first step in reducing drug toxicity.
“If we want to put this into actual practice, that is if the drug gets approval from the FDA for new use, that generally requires human clinical trials,” Xu said. “My line of work is to discover this new combination, but that opens up doors for clinicians to take this project further down the road. I’m just the person who opens the door.”