Improving the Drug Discovery Process

At the turn of the century the National Institute of Health (NIH) set out to establish a national network of drug creation centers, where all investigators and researchers could have access to advanced state of the art drug screening technologies. Emory’s Chemical Biology Discovery Center (ECBDC), previously a node of the NIH’s Molecular Libraries Screening Centers Network and currently a member of the National Cancer Institute’s Chemical Biology Consortium (NCI CBC), was established in 2003 as a part of the NIH’s vision.

There are traditionally two approaches that researchers take when attempting to identify and develop a new drug. The first is to design a drug using chemical or computer manipulations based on their professional expertise and medical rationale. However, this method of drug discovery is often a difficult and arduous process. The second approach to drug discovery is to screen the extensive library of existing compounds to identify ones that have the desired effect when tested on chemical or biological assays or test surfaces. The latter approach is that which is practiced in Molecular Libraries Screening Centers like the ECBDC.

Although drug screening is an efficient and efficacious approach to discovering new drugs and medications, it is also extremely expensive. Individuals researchers would never have the funding capabilities to afford the extensive library of existing compounds much less the complex screening infrastructure and technology needed to test those compounds on various chemical and or biological assays. Therefore, the creation of NIH funded centers like the ECBDC, where researchers can all utilize this advanced technology, facilitates and expedites drug discovery research being done by multiple investigative groups nationwide.

Using high-throughput small molecule screenings and imaging-based high content screening (HCS) with multiple integrated robotic systems, researchers at the ECBDC have the capability to identify compounds that could potentially be translated into clinically applicable drug candidates. By testing the library with thousands of different chemical compounds and their derivatives on various chemical and or biological assays or surfaces, critical and useful chemical combinations can be identified and potentially further developed. Individual researchers design and build unique assays on which they will test the compound library to mimic the specific disease conditions that they are trying to combat. At the ECBDC, researchers have worked on developing assays and testing compounds for a range of diseases including the measles, multiple cancers, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. Thanks to the ECBDC, many of these researchers have already run their initial tests and identified target compounds that have the potential to be translated into effective drugs.

From its creation in 2003 until 2010, the ECBDC was primarily funded by a $9 million dollar NIH grant. When the NIH grant ended, grants from the National Cancer Institute and the Cancer Target Discovery and Development program became the center’s primary source of funds and it was officially renamed the Chemical Biology Discovery Center. Regardless, the vision and mission behind the original NIH grant for the ECBDC remains intact. Over the years, researchers have had the opportunity to run thousands of screenings. Furthermore, the ECBDC has also created educational and training opportunities for the blossoming chemical biologists and drug discovery scientists. The network of molecular libraries screening centers created by the NIH over a decade ago has changed the practice of small molecule and drug discovery in the United States for the foreseeable future. These centers are tools that will continue to enable researchers to build and create life changing and saving products; consequently, increasing the drug discovery capabilities of multiple research teams.