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Scientist Spotlight: Dr. Damian Young

Dr. Damian Young is the associate director of the Center for Drug Discovery at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine. He has earned an international reputation as a leader in developing new and innovative small-molecule therapeutics for a wide variety of diseases. We recently sat down with Dr. Young to learn more about his work and what inspires him to invent new drugs.

What inspired you to become a scientist?
As a child, chemistry was always my favorite subject in school. Growing up, I was told that becoming a doctor was the career path for someone who liked science. But during my first week as an undergraduate student at Howard University, I attended the “major fair” to interact with faculty from various departments and pick my path. It was here that I met an African American gentleman in a lab coat who, upon learning of my interest in becoming a doctor, posed a simple question: “Would you rather be the one prescribing a drug or the one inventing one?” This was a paradigm-shifting, “lightbulb” moment for me — before this, I had never thought that I could invent new drugs!

Upon graduation, I worked for a pharmaceutical company and synthesized a new drug to treat HIV infections. I found this experience so exhilarating and enjoyable that it cemented my decision to give up the idea of becoming a doctor and instead follow my passion for organic chemistry and drug discovery.

What is the focus of your research at the Duncan NRI?
My lab develops new and innovative ways to make and screen small molecules that could eventually become treatments for a variety of diseases. For better outcomes with fewer side effects, we use state-of-the-art synthetic organic chemistry to design drugs that are far more specific and selective than drugs in the market right now. Our new Center for Drug Discovery at the Duncan NRI has unique and cutting-edge capabilities, which allows us to rapidly and cost-effectively screen billions of small molecules to identify promising leads. Using a process known as DNA-encoded chemistry technology (DEC-Tec), we attach each small molecule with a unique piece of DNA that serves as a barcode. This approach permits rapid screening of a five-billion-compound mixture in a single reaction test tube, highlighting small molecules that are best suited to address the disease target.

The remarkable DEC-Tec strategy makes it possible for us to develop a drug discovery pipeline that rivals what is being developed by leading pharmaceutical companies for a fraction of the cost. We then take the candidate drugs and test them in experimental models such as fruit flies, mice, and human neuron cultures. Our team of medicinal chemists at the Center for Drug Discovery collaborates with basic and translational scientists throughout the Duncan NRI to iteratively refine and narrow down the top targets and drug candidates, which subsequently undergo preclinical trials before entering clinical trials.

What do you enjoy most about working at the Duncan NRI?
I truly enjoy, and benefit immensely from, the collaborative environment and interactions with faculty from various disciplines here. Moreover, it is exciting to be working with so many brilliant colleagues to tackle the final frontier of medicine — the brain. With billions of neurons and a rich array of protein networks regulating its various intricate functions, the brain offers infinite possibilities for exploration and discovery. We still have so much to understand about how different neuronal proteins function and how we can correct the ones that malfunction with small-molecule drugs in order to create safe and effective treatments for patients with neurological and psychiatric disorders.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I love to cook. I am constantly experimenting and trying new dishes from cuisines around the world. This Christmas, I made some incredible Nigerian dishes for my family!

Rajalaxmi Natarajan, PhD
Tuesday, February 1, 2022