Public Health Researcher Receives Prestigious Award

 Alison Harrill
Alison Harrill, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAMS Regulatory Science program

Oct. 4, 2013 | Alison Harrill, Ph.D., a new faculty member in the UAMS Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, arrived on campus last month with the news that she is one of five nationwide recipients of a five-year, $500,000 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Innovation in Regulatory Science Award.

Harrill, an assistant professor in the UAMS Regulatory Science program, will apply the award to her ongoing research focused on improving the understanding and prediction of adverse drug and chemical reactions in humans. In short, her research focus is on the development of greater efficiencies in testing the safety of new drugs so that they can be moved more quickly to market, but with a reduction in risk for unexpected, idiosyncratic drug toxicity events.

“My research platform is built on a seemingly simple idea – that drug safety testing using genetically similar individuals or strains of animals – in this case, mice – is not giving us an accurate representation of how a genetically diverse human population would respond,” Harrill said.

To address this limitation, Harrill uses a genetically diverse mouse population that mimics the genetic diversity of human populations. This unique resource, called the Diversity Outbred, was developed by Harrill’s collaborators at The Jackson Laboratory.

Such an approach enables her to observe reactions across a full spectrum of known and quantifiable genetic variation.

Harrill will use award funds to pursue her research in the identification of biomarkers that are more sensitive and predictive than those currently relied on as signals of potential drug-induced injury. In particular, she is interested in identifying genetic markers that underlie drug toxicities affecting the liver.

“The plan is to treat the Diversity Outbred mice with several pharmaceutical compounds – some of these compounds comprise a unique resource – drugs acquired from drug companies that either failed in early clinical development or are still on the market but have a risk of very rare toxicity,” Harrill said. “Because we have sophisticated tools for analysis of effects of gene variants on the risk of having an adverse drug reaction, we can potentially identify personalized medicine strategies that will allow physicians to predict whether a patient would have an adverse reaction based on their genes – and tailor medications accordingly.”

What Harrill is referring to is the emerging field of pharmacogenetic testing. Currently there are only few a FDA-approved tests available. But Harrill foresees the demand growing, for some types of drugs more than others.

“There is a big push to develop new antibiotics because of drug-resistant strains,” Harrill said. “If you have a drug that looks promising and has a low risk for toxicity, with such a pharmacogenetic test you might be able to get it introduced to market more quickly and at a lower risk to patients.”

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