New Computer Chip Reducing Drug Development Time

Researchers have recently created a chip that could greatly enhance the current drug development process. The current procedure involves searching for novel compounds, producing them, and testing their effectiveness in three different steps, making the development slow and costly. By combining these steps onto a chip, however, a team from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) has taken this complexity out of the drug research process. Their work was recently published in the journal Nature Communications .

Currently, the drug development process can take over 20 years and cost between two to four billion dollars. This journey begins with the creation of a large molecular library. These molecules are created, isolated, and characterized individually, then analyzed for activity. The compounds that are very biologically active are selected from this library for further research. Scientists recreate the molecule with different variations to create a secondary molecular library.

Once the chemists have isolated several compounds with high activity, they begin testing these compounds in animals and humans. Of these many compounds, only one (or none) make it to the final stage of drug development. This inefficient and expensive technique that is currently in play needs reform, with different processes requiring strict separation.

“For this reason, we have developed a platform that combines synthesis of compound libraries with biological high-throughput screening on a single chip,” explains Maximilian Benz of KIT’s Institute of Toxicology and Genetics (ITG).

This chip system, known as chemBIOS, uses both organic solvents for synthesis and aqueous mixtures for screening, successfully unifying the synthesis and screening processes.

“We use the chemBIOS platform to perform 75 parallel three-component reactions for synthesis of a library of lipids, i.e. fats, followed by characterization using mass spectroscopy, on-chip formation of lipoplexes, and biological cell screening,” says Benz.

The lipoplex is comprised of nucleic acids and lipids and can be taken up by animal cells. Benz noted that the process of library synthesis to cell screening can be completed in three days using only 1 milliliter of solution, whereas other techniques need liters of solutions. With this fast and efficient technique, he expects chemBIOS to greatly facilitate the drug development process. This technology was nominated for KIT’s NEULAND Innovation Prize this year as well.

Though the demand for new drugs is increasing, the pharma industry is struggling to keep up. From the 90’s to the 2000’s, the number of new drugs released in over 20 leading countries dropped from 367 to 251. There is a trend of less drugs being tested in clinical trials each year, with new treatments undergoing lengthy research and development processes. Benz and colleagues are hopeful that with their chemBIOS chip, the pharma industry will see an increase in productivity in coming years.