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How chemistry and biology work together to make drugs

Posted on 04 November, 2013 by Eva Sharpe
This week I’m at the NCRI Cancer Conference in Liverpool, and blogging about some of the sessions that I’m attending. This morning I started with a workshop on integrating chemistry and biology in academic drug discovery run by two researchers from The Institute of Cancer Research, London - Dr Michelle Garrett and Professor Ian Collins  - and sponsored by the British Association of Cancer Research.

Getting lots of different scientific disciplines to work together is critical to the success of any cancer drug discovery project, and it’s recognised as one of our great strengths here at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR). What I really enjoyed about this session was a chance to hear more about the practical ways that this collaborative approach is delivered. Dr Garrett and Professor Collins covered questions such as ‘what makes a good cancer drug target?’ and ‘what makes good chemical tools and drugs?’ using examples from their work.

One message that was really clear from the workshop was that chemistry and biology aren’t just sequential steps in a linear pathway in drug discovery, but that this activity is joined up and dynamic. At all times in drug dicovery you need to be thinking ahead to later stages, so for example when identifying new drug targets it is important to think about whether there are predictive biomarkers which can be used to identify patients who will benefit from any drugs against these targets.

What I found really interesting was the way that results are fed back into earlier stages of the research.  It is not just the case that biological research provides us with the targets for our cancer drug discovery work, and then chemistry provides suitable drugs; the research is much more iterative. Identifying a chemical compound during drug discovery work can provide opportunities for new biological functional research, well before a drug makes it into patients, and even drugs which never make it to patients can be used in this way. Chemists may identify a compound which is very selective in what they want it to do, but which is unsuitable for use in patients, perhaps because it doesn’t have the right metabolic properties. This can still be a useful ‘chemical tool’ for research, and Dr Garrett and Professor Collins gave several examples of using these compounds to conduct further biological research. 

Dr Garrett described using chemical tools to identify different mechanisms for drug resistance in cells treated with different compounds, which can then be used to influence clinical approaches taken when using drugs against these targets in patients later down the line.  In another example, Professor Collins described using chemical tools in cells to investigate the best ways to combine different drug treatments to optimise the timings and duration of the treatments, before the drugs were tried in patients.

It was clear that the interplay between research in chemistry and biology results in both potential new drugs, and also new scientific discoveries. The session stressed the importance that networks and collaborations plays in this work, both internally, through setting up multidisciplinary teams such as those at the ICR, and with collaborations between organisations. Ultimately, by creatively combining approaches in drug discovery, our research becomes much greater than the sum of its parts.


Michelle Garrett
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