UNMC creates new Center for Drug Design and Innovation

Keith Olsen, PharmD, the Joseph D. Williams Endowed Dean of the UNMC College of Pharmacy, and Corey Hopkins, PhD, professor of pharmaceutical sciences and inaugural director of the Center for Drug Design and Innovation

The University of Nebraska Board of Regents Thursday approved the establishment of a new UNMC Center for Drug Design and Innovation (CDDI) within the UNMC College of Pharmacy.

The center aims to fill the gap left as drug research and development by the pharmaceutical industry has narrowed. A new “mixed model” of drug discovery has seen a dramatic increase in partnerships between biotechnology companies and the traditional large pharma companies.

And, in the past 10 years, there also has been the development of industry-academia collaborations aimed at further filling this drug-discovery gap.

Enter the CDDI. “The UNMC Center for Drug Design and Innovation will bridge the gap between drug discovery and drug development, improving lives,” said UNMC Chancellor Jeffrey P. Gold, MD. “Bringing these new inventions to the people also will invigorate our state’s economy, through entrepreneurship and job growth based on the superb creativity and hard work of our faculty.”

The chancellor noted that patenting and licensing of these new inventions often leads to spinoff companies and STEM jobs.

UNMC’s College of Pharmacy is uniquely positioned for the task.

“Our college is home to leading experts in medicinal chemistry, target discovery and biophysics, drug delivery and clinical pharmaceutical sciences, including drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics,” said Keith Olsen, PharmD, the Joseph D. Williams Endowed Dean of the UNMC College of Pharmacy.

Dr. Olsen explained that CDDI will lay the foundation for seminal contributions from UNMC’s research faculty, as well as the wider Nebraska system, and put the NU system on par with peer Big Ten institutions.

“Most importantly, we believe this center will be a critical resource for the design of new therapeutics that provide new hope for Nebraskans facing challenging medical diagnoses,” Dr. Olsen said.

And “the timing is perfect,” as UNMC launches the Innovation Hub at Catalyst, said Corey Hopkins, PhD, professor of pharmaceutical sciences and CDDI’s inaugural director. “The creation of the center will provide a jump start in the entrepreneurial and drug discovery innovation aspect of the Innovation Hub.”

The two entities will find synergy and build and grow together, Dr. Hopkins said.

Dr. Hopkins has more than 20 years of experience in both the pharmaceutical industry and academic drug discovery. He was a project team leader at Sanofi Pharmaceuticals, where he led projects that resulted in two clinical candidate designations. Dr. Hopkins then moved to the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery, where he was responsible for multiple projects that were licensed to industrial partners and directly led to a compound being advanced into clinical trials. Since coming to UNMC in 2016, he has had one project licensed and has had two patents granted.

“They are two completely different beasts,” he said of industry and academia. “Being able to see it on both sides has helped me know where to find that collaborator or find that missing piece that’s needed.”

The CDDI integrates and brings people into a larger team to better able to bring discoveries forward, Dr. Hopkins said.

The center would encompass any potential disease or therapeutic area because pre-clinical drug discovery often overlaps in many activities regardless of disease. Accordingly, there are many areas of research where UNMC excels, including cancer, infectious disease, neuroscience and others, that the CDDI would be able to positively impact, said Aaron Mohs, PhD, UNMC College of Pharmacy associate dean for research and graduate studies. “The center has drawn support from across campus.”

The center’s mission goals are:

  • Enhance, organize and grow UNMC’s drug discovery capabilities;
  • Support and stimulate efforts to obtain grant funding for drug discovery projects;
  • Promote a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship;
  • Provide educational outreach to faculty and students.

The center, which is pending approval by the Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education, also will be a unique entity that can help attract additional grants, contracts, partnerships, start-ups and STEM jobs that will help stimulate economic development in Nebraska.

CDDI is forecast to be cost-neutral to the State of Nebraska. The UNMC College of Pharmacy anticipates budget revenues to be established through new discoveries, research funding and philanthropic investments. An estate gift from alumnus Joseph Williams, PharmD, allows for matching funds, to be used to match gift commitments from other donors that support college of pharmacy students, faculty and programs.

Marsha Morien, a retired senior leader at UNMC, and her husband Neal Morien, a retired senior executive at Mutual of Omaha, were inspired by the vision of CDDI and have made a gift through the University of Nebraska Foundation and the Only in Nebraska campaign, which will be matched through the Williams endowment. 


  1. Nathan Bills says:

    Thank you Marsha and Neal for supporting forward-thinking initiatives that make a difference at UNMC!

  2. Ann Anderson Berry says:

    Congratulations to the College of Pharmacy on this exciting new opportunity. CHRI will look forward to partnering in drug discovery for improvements in child health.

  3. Tom O’Connor says:

    Exciting news for the College of Pharmacy! Kudos to Neal and Marsha Morien for helping to make this happen!

  4. Howard Gendelman says:

    Wonderful news and congratulations to all of the growing numbers of outstanding faculties in the College of Pharmacy.

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