Biotech Revolutions

Smaller, faster, better: the three revolutions in drug making.

by William Wells

Testing one drug at a time in a mouse is just not going to cut it in today's pharmaceutical industry. In the last ten years there have been three overlapping revolutions in biology, chemistry and robotics, which together have changed the nature of drug hunting.

Large-scale sequencing of DNA has created the field of genomics. By comparing genes to one another biologists can take a quick guess at what the corresponding protein does, and what disease it might be involved in. Suddenly there are tens or hundreds of proteins that, if they can be turned off with a drug, might be the key to stopping cancer.

What will turn the proteins off is a chemical, and there are more of them too. Combinatorial chemistry is a way of making millions of chemicals where once there were handfuls. Everything is reacted with everything in complicated matrices, giving perhaps a million (100x100x100) chemicals from only three hundred (100+100+100) starting materials.

If more chemicals have to be tested against more proteins, the testers better get faster. Drug testing has been roboticized and miniaturized. A drug can be tested in a single cell, a tiny capillary tube, or even a drop that holds a few worms.