Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation

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“Drug Hunter” Jon Young draws on industry roots to lead WARF Therapeutics

Jeanan Yasiri Moe, Director of Strategic Communications
[email protected] | 608.960.9892

Major new program looks to advance novel medicines for patients with unmet medical needs

MADISON, Wis. – Today more than 30 percent of FDA-approved novel new compounds originate in research universities. With the potential for high value returns, universities across the country are investing heavily in drug discovery programs. But championing campus-born innovations through preclinical hurdles requires resources and expertise.

For Jon Young, that challenge is an opportunity.

Jon Young
Jon Young

Young was tapped last fall to helm WARF Therapeutics – the new initiative that aims to bring pharmaceuticals closer to market. Young and his team are tasked with identifying the most commercially promising biological target discoveries on campus, identifying and optimizing small molecule drug candidates, and navigating those assets through the technical stages to make them attractive to development partners.

Learn about the upcoming WARF Therapeutics launch event on Feb. 21, 2019. More information below.

Prior to WARF, Young served as vice president of Regulus Therapeutics in San Diego. His experience includes directorships at Merck Research Laboratories (1994-2014) and Celgene (2014-2017). Originally from the Twin Cities, Young earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from Michigan State University.

Young, who brings more than 20 years of experience in medicinal chemistry in pharma and biotech, describes his mission as “bridging the gap” between UW discoveries and industry. Building relationships with principal investigators (PIs) interested in translational research is a vital first step.

He notes that WARF Therapeutics is a new program but the vision is old as the foundation itself. Since 1925, WARF and UW-Madison have partnered to eradicate rickets, make warfarin one of the most successful blood thinners in history, and bring lifesaving vitamin D therapies to millions of patients.

Legacy is powerful but Young is focused on the future. Immunoncology is changing the conversation on cancer, he says, while neurodegenerative diseases continue to frustrate researchers and devastate families.

He recently sat down to discuss his hopes for WARF Therapeutics, why most fundamental discoveries occur outside the walls of big pharma labs, and the best part of his new job.

WARF: How do academia and industry work together on drug discovery?

Jon Young: The boundary between academia and the pharmaceutical industry is becoming more permeable as the two converge on common goals for the improvement of human health. Most basic research occurs outside the walls of pharmaceutical laboratories. Indeed, the initial fundamental discoveries that ultimately lead to new therapies often emerge from academia.

Perhaps the greatest contributions to drug discovery from academia are the deep mechanistic knowledge of disease biology and big data techniques, such as are seen in the area of human genetics. Most pharmaceutical companies have been reducing internal investment in early discovery. These companies need academia.

W: What does WARF Therapeutics offer to campus researchers, and who may participate?

JY: WARF Therapeutics represents a team of industry-experienced “drug hunters” with expertise in navigating the preclinical space (target validation to development candidate). PIs with translational research goals interested in contributing to the discovery of a drug are a good fit for the program.

W: Looking ahead, what are the main objectives of the program?

JY: The aspirational goals and benefits of the program include: support a revenue stream for PI labs, UW and WARF; continue UW’s legacy of drug discovery innovation; and ultimately deliver novel medicines to patients with unmet medical needs.

W: What are some of those major unmet needs?

JY: Since around 2000, challenging targets in oncology and neurodegeneration have dominated research. The biology within these disease areas is complex, the in vivo disease models are challenging and the translatability to human disease is unknown, and early biomarkers of efficacy are often inaccessible. All of these factors contribute to the challenge.

W: In your career you’ve contributed to or led teams to the discovery of eight clinical drug candidates. How will you draw on that?

JY: After 25 years in big pharma, I will draw upon those experiences and build a similar drug discovery capability adjacent to this world class institution, meet with PIs to identify novel and promising targets on campus, and collaborate with them to prosecute their programs with my small team. That is going to be an effective approach – and a very fun job. I think it’s going to be a very fruitful way to do things going forward.

WARF Therapeudics logo

WARF Therapeutics launch event on Feb. 21

Faculty, staff and students interested in translating their research ‘from bench to bedside’ are invited to a special kickoff session on Thursday, Feb. 21, at the Discovery Building (330 N. Orchard St.).

Attendees will learn about new therapeutics development opportunities on campus and network with leaders from WARF, ICTR, the School of Medicine and Public Health and the School of Pharmacy.

Found in Translation: New Drug Discovery and Development Initiatives on Campus will be held from 9 a.m. to noon. The event will feature:

Young says, “To continue the legacy of biopharmaceutical innovation at UW-Madison, WARF is taking a dynamic and proactive role to build industry-centric drug discovery capabilities to facilitate advancement of UW-Madison early assets, and to help enrich a community of practice.”

Talks by Brasier and Young will be followed by a panel of researchers with advanced pharmaceutical development experience including:

  • Luigi Puglielli, M.D., Ph.D.: Professor in the School of Medicine and Public Health. Dr. Puglielli’s research program focuses broadly on molecular mechanisms of neurodevelopment and neurodegeneration.
  • Doug McNeel, M.D., Ph.D.: Professor in the School of Medicine and Public Health and scientific founder and chief medical officer of Madison Vaccines Inc. MVI is a clinical stage biopharmaceutical company developing gene-based immunotherapies for men with all stages of prostate cancer.
  • Jennifer Golden, Ph.D.: Assistant professor in the School of Pharmacy and associate director of the Medicinal Chemistry Center. Golden’s medicinal chemistry lab develops novel synthetic methodologies aimed at designing small molecules that are useful in drug discovery and development.

About WARF
The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) helps steward the cycle of research, discovery, commercialization and investment for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Founded in 1925 as an independent, nonprofit foundation, WARF manages more than 2,000 patents and an investment portfolio of $2.7 billion as it funds university research, obtains patents for campus discoveries and licenses inventions to industry. For more information, visit warf.org and view WARF’s Cycle of Innovation.

About WARF Therapeutics
Consistent with its mission to support UW-Madison research and make a global impact, WARF Therapeutics is a major initiative to move new pharmaceuticals closer to market. The program will take select assets and lead them through preclinical development, towards commercialization and the benefit of human lives. More at warf.org/therapeutics.