Less than a year after the University of Arizona's Bio5 Institute opened a drug-research branch in Oro Valley, researchers there say they're exceeding their goals.

The Oro Valley facility, which opened Nov. 19, was designed to get new therapies and drugs to patients faster by placing academia and industry closer.

Around two-thirds of the building is dedicated to groups under the direction of UA professors.

The remaining space is to be rented to pharmaceutical companies. While that space remains empty, Bio5 has seen some interest from potential tenants.

In June 2010, the university paid $3.05 million - considered a bargain - for the 27,464-square-foot facility at 1580 E. Hanley Blvd. The building served as a drug-research center for Sanofi-Aventis before the French company, whose local operation started as a UA spinoff, moved to larger space at nearby Innovation Park.

Researchers at Bio5 Oro Valley hope to use the laboratories to get projects closer to clinical trials and thus closer to patients. The closer to human trials, the less risky, and more enticing, a project is to companies.

"Companies are very risk-averse right now, so it's a challenge," said Nina Ossanna, director of Bio5 business development and strategic planning. "I get faculty members disclosing or telling me about new drugs that they have, but I haven't been able to license a new pharmaceutical for years."

Researchers say the new facility has helped them meet grant deadlines and get their drug candidates closer to market.

Hong-yu Li, a UA pharmacy professor, leads a team researching cancer, currently focusing on thyroids. Li said he hopes to have a provisional patent on his research in the next few months.

"It's very exciting - we're already in the process of getting the compounds into animals (for testing)," Li said. Animal testing is necessary before human trials can begin.

Christopher Hulme, a UA pharmacology and toxicology professor, and one of the co-directors of the Arizona Drug Discovery Center at Bio5 Oro Valley, said that in the past nine months they've submitted 2,000 compounds to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). These compounds can be used to find proteins that would indicate a possible new drug. Of those thousands, 650 compounds have been sent and processed to the 13 U.S. centers where they'll be screened.

"I'm hoping that the results will start emerging over the next three to six months," Hulme said.

If any of the compounds work, the team will be notified and start working on making them into a possible drug.

While the team continues to send compounds to NIH's library, they also are working with a team of industry leaders.

"We are in the phase of building relationships with these pharmaceutical companies," Hulme said.

Getting a new drug on the market, from research to production, costs around $1 billion, Ossanna said. Many companies aren't willing to front the venture capital - private equity investment - so UA researchers have been depending on patient advocacy groups and grants.

Li is more interested in making a small, startup company for the beginning phases of the drug development, like clinical trials, and then partnering with a larger one later on.

"A big company is very political, and I'm not trusting them in terms of efficiency of the work," Li said. "Getting into the later phases is getting into more money and in that case, the only way is to partner with a big pharmaceutical."

Another obstacle is that it can take up to 10 years for a drug to be fully developed and FDA approved, which can be too long for smaller companies that may run out of time or funds.

As the research teams work to figure out which compounds will actually work and be marketable, the number of years and capital needed from companies is reduced.

For example, a pharmaceutical company can join the project when there are only five years remaining before production, instead of 10.

"It's certainly a stepping stone in the right direction," said Alex Laetsch, a BIO5 research technician in the analytical lab, which analyzes and purifies compounds for both research groups.

Eugene Gerner, UA professor emeritus and founder of Cancer Prevention Pharmaceuticals, is working with a team to try to commercialize drugs to prevent gastrointestinal cancers.

"Moving to Oro Valley allowed us to interface and interact with a number of companies with resources, which has been great since we're in a growth development stage of our company," Gerner said.

Meanwhile, many of the industry labs are under construction or being repainted, as Bio5 courts potential tenants.

"I think the priority was to get the people who were going to move in immediately in first," Ossanna said. BIO5 officials received several serious offers and are talking with perspective clients now, though they haven't rented any space yet.

Pharmaceutical companies donated many pieces of the lab equipment.

"A lot of the equipment in these labs is industrial-like rather than academic-like," Ossanna said. "Pharmaceutical companies are cutting their research staffs, and since our guys are from some of these companies, they called their old buddies and said, 'Hey, do you have any old equipment?' and so we got some great donations."

Pharmaceutical companies depend more on research and university facilities as they make cuts to their own researchers.

Michelle A. Monroe is a a University of Arizona journalism student and a NASA Space Grant intern. Contact her at mmonroe@azstarnet.com