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NIH Grant Aims to Make Drugs Taste Better, Not Bitter

Dispensing pills


14 September 2018. A new award from National Institutes of Health funds a study to identify components in taste bud cells that block bitter taste sensations encountered in some drugs and foods. The $271,000 Small Business Technology Transfer grant from National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, part of NIH, was made to Monell Chemical Senses Center, a research institute in Philadelphia, and Discovery BioMed Inc., a drug discovery company in Birmingham, Alabama.

The project aims to find a mechanism for stopping the bitter taste that some people experience when taking food or medications. These bitter sensations can impede healthy eating habits and make it more difficult for some people, particularly children and older individuals, to take their prescribed drugs. Bitter taste sensations, says the Monell Center, probably evolved in humans as a way to protect against ingesting toxins. While adding sugar, artificial sweeteners, or salt can mask bitter tastes, those solutions are not always healthy choices for many people, such as those with diabetes or hypertension.

The one-year study plans to advance earlier research at Monell Center on the physiology of human taste bud cells, combined with Discovery BioMed’s work with high-throughput screening technologies using human tissue samples. Monell Center will establish cultures of cells in the lining of taste buds from donors who report bitter taste experiences, as well as collect genetic data indicating their heightened bitter-taste sensitivity. With those cultures, Discovery BioMed will create taste bud cell lines that grow indefinitely, then clone the bitter-taste sensitive cells to develop a technology for high-speed screening of molecules that block bitter sensation receptors. To prove the concept, the project includes testing the system with known and validated substances that activate bitter-taste sensations.

“Using human-derived taste cells to identify potential bitter blocking compounds is more likely to identify blockers that also work in human subjects than tests done in non-taste cells,” says Danielle Reed, associate director of the Monell Center, in a statement. “During this first phase of development, our goal is to establish the technical merit and feasibility of our approach so that we have a robust platform on which to discover, validate, and profile bitter taste antagonists moving forward.”

The award to Discovery BioMed and the Monell Center was made under NIH’s Small Business Technology Transfer or STTR grant program. STTR grants are funds set aside from the agency’s research budget for collaborations between small businesses and academic or not-for-profit research labs. In STTR and related Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR grants awarded to small businesses alone, the first phase of a typical project establishes its technical and commercial feasibility, and if successful, can be extended in a second phase to develop the technology into working prototypes or for clinical trials.

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