Don’t call it a comeback…

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There’s been quite a bit of buzz about a recent Nature Chemical Biology paper from Chong et al. (the work was featured in CE&N, Chemistry World, and The authors created a library of 2,687 existing drugs and screened them for inhibitors of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum. (“”">The [Johns Hopkins Clinical Compound Library] contains 1937 drugs that have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), along with 750 drugs that have either been approved for use in other countries or are undergoing Phase II clinical trials.")

The main idea is that if the authors could find a relatively potent inhibitor of multidrug-resistant parasites, the compounds could be put into human clinical trials very quickly (since many of the compounds are already FDA-approved for human use). In fact, you may have already taken astemizole, which was “”">introduced in 1983 under the brand name Hismanal as a nonsedating selective H1-histamine receptor antagonist for treating allergic rhinitis and was sold in 106 countries [over the counter]."

Chong talked about this work at the ASBMB meeting a few months ago – Jennifer Kohler wrote a Meeting Report in the June issue of Nature Chemical Biology, in which she said:

The goal of the initiative is to facilitate the rapid discovery of new treatments for urgent unmet needs and to do so at a reduced cost … By focusing on approved compounds, they hope to avoid much of the time and expense associated with developing a new chemical entity into a drug … Chong is optimistic that use of this library may provide a facile route to desperately needed treatment options for malaria and other diseases of the developing world.

I think that most people would agree that new drugs are desperately needed to combat malaria (and many other diseases that disproportionately affect people living in the developing world). But the “appropriate” relationship between academic research and drug discovery/development is hotly debated – some people think that it is possible for academic scientists and drug companies to work together to develop new drugs. For example, Sanchez-Serrano recently wrote that “[t]he success of [the cancer drug] bortezomib was ultimately due to the tenacity of the people involved and the close collaboration … between academia, the private sector, private investors, public institutions and advocacy groups.” And Lunn & Stockwell wrote that (with respect to orphan genetic diseases) “academics, nonprofit organizations, and industrial groups can work together to develop the equipment, technologies, and assays needed for investigating these devastating and neglected human diseases.” But other scientists feel that academics should focus on “pure” research problems and leave the discovery and development of drugs to the professionals…

What do you think about this debate? Should NIH (or other government) funds be spent trying to discover/develop new drugs? Do you think that academic scientists can help pharmaceutical companies discover new drugs? (If so, what do you think academics can bring “to the table”?)


Joshua Finkelstein (Associate Editor, Nature)