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Seventy-five years ago this month, a group of visionaries came together to found an organization that would go on to pioneer groundbreaking science that has saved lives, impacted the environment, and even helped Americans explore space.
Birmingham-based Southern Research has done all of those things and more, finding answers to some of the world’s most challenging problems. And they’ve done it with the support of Protective Life, which has a long history of supporting the institution.
Today, Southern Research has nearly 500 scientists and engineers working across four areas: drug discovery, drug development, engineering, and energy and environment. Their scientists have developed and tested drugs to treat cancer and other diseases, worked on technology to keep men and women of the military safe, and have developed ways to monitor and improve air quality. And that is just part of their work.
“Like most organizations, ours is a story of people. We cannot overstate the importance of the vision of our founder and early leaders, who saw a need for a research institute, and built the foundation for what Southern Research is today. We celebrate that vision every day, but take particular pause to celebrate as we turn 75,” says Art Tipton, president and CEO of Southern Research.
This all began in 1940 as a dream of Thomas Martin’s, then president of Alabama Power. His goal was to form a research institute for Southern industry. Soon, fundraising began. Protective Life Corporation president Col. William J. Rushton helped in early fundraising and was a founding Board member who was instrumental in selecting key leadership. And, in 1945, Southern Research opened its doors.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact that Southern Research has had since then. Beginning in the 1950s, it served as an international leader in the development of pioneering cancer drugs. Under the leadership of Dr. Howard Skipper, Southern Research scientists developed the fundamentals of chemotherapy and its dosing. Continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal and private organizations, Southern Research has discovered seven FDA approved anticancer drugs, and been involved in testing more than half of the anticancer drugs on the market.
At the same time that Southern Research’s drug discovery program grew, its scientists were at work across many other disciplines. Beginning in the 1960s, they began working with NASA on the space program. Engineers exposed materials to extreme conditions like those of re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, providing data that helped NASA select heat-shield materials. Southern Research also designed radiometers that provided temperature measurements on the moon’s surface, which factored into landing site decisions. Working with the Apollo launches, Southern Research established onsite laboratory operations at Kennedy Space Center to support operations. Its scientists worked on the Space Shuttle program for more than two decades.
Beginning in the 1970s, Southern Research began a close relationship with the Environmental Protection Agency, leading to discoveries to better measure and control air pollution. And, in 1986 its researchers added another area of research: virology studies to better understand and treat HIV/AIDS, work that continues to this day.
Today Southern Research continues its work as an international scientific leader. In 2015, Japan-based Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company and Protective Life made a $2 million gift to UAB and Southern Research to help fund the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance, which tests and develops new drugs to combat diseases. There are currently 18 new potential drugs in the ADDA pipeline, which represent treatments for diabetes, kidney disease, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Protective and Dai-chai’s support impact efforts at every stage of the drug discovery process, from testing to clinical trials.
What does the future hold? Southern Research is making headlines today for its work in developing a test to detect the Zika virus in infected cell cultures. They also work on developing drugs and vaccines to protect U.S. Army troops from dangers ranging from biological warfare to exotic diseases.
“Research is complex and can be lengthy and expensive. Partners are important in the research journey,” says Tipton. “Southern Research was fortunate to have strong partners like Protective from our founding in 1941. Today we are also fortunate to continue that relationship. The gift to our ADDA partnership with UAB was made at a pivotal time as drive new drugs to the market. The Dai-Ichi philosophy of ‘By your side, for life’ resonates with us as we continue our strong relationship with Protective, and jointly continue our quest for new drugs.”