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New Web tool may speed drug discovery

In Health on October 3, 2006 at 9:24 pm

By Gareth Cook, Globe Staff | September 29, 2006

Local scientists have created what they hope will become the Google of drug discovery: a free, Web-based search engine that quickly finds potential new compounds to treat particular diseases.
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As the website went live yesterday, the team released three papers in top scientific journals, demonstrating the technique’s promise. In initial testing, the search engine identified a potential leukemia drug. A clinical trial for that drug, which is already approved for another use, is likely to begin in the next few months — a testament to the speed of the new approach.The new tool, dubbed the “connectivity map,” works by quickly matching drugs and diseases that have opposite effects on some of the genes inside a human cell — the set of instructions that, when turned on, tell the cell what to do. A match would indicate that giving the drug might reverse the effects of the disease, turning off genes the disease turns on, and vice versa.

The utility of the database needs to be verified with a larger study, but scientists said it promises to accelerate drug discovery at a time when developing a new drug is frustratingly slow and expensive.

“The industry is always going to be enthusiastic about any tool that helps in the discovery process, and this looks like a very exciting tool that has real potential,” said Janice Reichert , a senior research fellow at the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development .
Pop-up Speeding the search for cures

Scientists at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, which created the web site and search engine, said they have already begun work to expand the database to include more than 10 times as many compounds. And, they said, they were hopeful that other laboratories would eventually join in, creating a massive, cooperative venture similar to the Human Genome Project, allowing scientists from around the world to efficiently aggregate their genetic data and insights.

“It is a major intellectual and practical tool,” said Eric S. Lander, director of the Broad Institute. “I imagine a world, five years from now, where everyone who is working on a potential drug will, as the first thing they do, quickly look it up” to see what diseases it might work on.

The work, published by the journals Science and Cancer Cell, suggests that it is possible to dramatically simplify some aspects of biology, and thus speed the search for cures, according to Dr. Todd R. Golub , who led the research at the Broad Institute and is also a cancer researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Children’s Hospital Boston. Different types of cells typically respond slightly differently to drugs, but the team found that analyzing just a few types of cells, such as skin cells, was enough to make connections to diseases that affect organs as diverse as the brain and the prostate.Continued...

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