Monday, July 20, 2009 | University of California, San Diego researchers are harnessing the San Diego Supercomputer Center’s raw-number crunching power for a novel technique in drug testing, potentially slashing costs and seeking new uses for old prescription drugs at a time when the struggling biotechnology industry desperately needs to do both.
Retooling an existing drug for a different purpose as scientists at UCSD’s Skaggs School of Pharmacy did recently isn’t a new idea — it’s known as drug repurposing. A famous example is the drug Viagra, which Pfizer originally developed to treat angina, but was repurposed after clinical trials showed its other benefit.
But the banks of computers at the Supercomputer Center are allowing scientists to super-charge that process — rapidly screening drugs against more than 50,000 possible proteins at once. This research could end up crucial to an industry that is faced with a business model that has in many ways crumbled under the weight of the financial crisis.
The days when a biotech could survive for decades on the prospects of one or two home-run drugs are gone. Now companies have to find multiple revenue sources in shorter time frames. This new paradigm is especially important in San Diego, home to a biotech cluster that employs around 44,000 people and pumps upwards of $9 billion annually into the local economy.
“The notion of what we know as drug discovery — looking at one receptor, one drug, one disease — is out the window,” says Philip Bourne, a UCSD pharmacologist and the leader of the research team. Bourne’s lab takes a broader approach by exploring how a drug might interact with other proteins, instead of focusing only on the one it’s intended to target.
Recently Bourne’s team used this technique to find a possible new application for Comtan and Tasmar, drugs used to treat Parkinson’s disease. Their computer model predicted the two medications would bind to a protein the tuberculosis bacterium uses to repair its cell wall. Researchers later verified that both drugs work against tuberculosis in the test tube as predicted.