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Stephen Frye, PhD, former worldwide head of discovery medicinal chemistry at GlaxoSmithKline, will lead the new Center for Integrative Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“The days when large pharmaceutical companies could be solely relied on to effectively translate basic research into new medicines are passing,” Frye said. “Academic science will have to rise to the challenge.”

Frye is co-inventor of GSK’s Avodart, a drug used to shrink an enlarged prostate gland that is also under study for prevention of prostate cancer. Prior to his most recent role at GSK, his department in RTP also discovered a drug candidate that became Tykerb, a breast-cancer drug approved by the FDA in March.

The center is a joint initiative supported by the UNC School of Pharmacy, the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, the UNC School of Medicine, and the Department of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences. Frye is a research professor in the School of Pharmacy.

The School of Pharmacy had been talking about forming a drug-discovery center for more than three years, said Dean Bob Blouin.

“We envisioned an organization very rooted in our academic culture but also working to extend our discoveries out into the world,” he said. “But talking about doing it is totally different from bringing in a person who has done it. Stephen Frye is that person. He is going to create something unique and novel here at UNC.”

Frye said he plans to start with two teams of five scientists each that will examine biological drug targets identified by UNC researchers. The teams will work to develop molecules that interact with those targets, the first step in developing a drug. The center will definitely focus some of its efforts on cancer research because there is such a huge need and significant expertise at UNC in oncology, he said.

Shelton Earp, MD, director of the Lineberger center, said he was excited about Frye coming to UNC and said that the new center would serve as a bridge between basic science and clinical practice.

“UNC’s cancer researchers work as a team and work brilliantly on both ends of the spectrum ferreting out the molecular causes of cancer and studying our patients’ responses to novel therapies,” he said.

“Stephen Frye provides the vital middle piece,” Earp said. “He brings a scientific skill set that fills a research gap that exists at virtually all university cancer programs. His world-class expertise will enable his team to turn Cancer Center discoveries into useful chemical probes and eventually into the drugs of tomorrow.”

Frye said he will focus on moving basic scientific discovery to a practical application by focusing the wide range of academic disciplines available at UNC toward a common goal. This multidisciplinary, product focused approach has been successful in the drug industry but is not widely used in academic institutions, he says. He used the space program of the 1960s as an illustration.

“If you had just thrown that much money at academia and said, ‘Do some interesting things in physics, computing, technology, and aeronautics,” do you think we would have ended up on the moon?” he said. “You have to have a product focus. Drug discovery is very much science driven, but you actually have to have a target you’re trying to get to.”

UNC Provost Bernadette Gray-Little was highly supportive of the new center and Frye’s proposed methodology.

“Interdisciplinary research has been major focus of the University for the past several years,” Gray-Little said. “The addition of Stephen Frye to our faculty continues that emphasis and also strengthens our focus on translational research. I expect that Stephen Frye will have great success in drug discoveries with direct health benefits. We are delighted that he has joined the faculty and will head this new drug discovery center.”

Frye said that large drug companies are less and less willing to bear the risk and expense of early-stage drug discovery and development. It can take ten to fifteen years and a billion dollars to get a drug to market, he said, noting that GSK spent more than $60 million on just one year of human clinical trials for Avodart.

Changing personnel also make it difficult for corporations to see long-term projects through, Frye said.

“The science is hard enough, but the real challenge is to keep some organizational focus on the projects you’re really going to bet on,” he said. “I think it’s gotten to the point where it’s impossible. If you have a long-term view of the science you want to do, you will be continually frustrated in industry.”

Frye said he is very much looking forward to starting work, he knows it won’t be easy.

“Keep in mind that the only people less successful at drug discovery than Big Pharma are everybody else,” he said.