Drug Discovery Process – Part II

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Drug Discovery Process – Part II

Target identification

Drugs fail in the clinic for two main reasons; the first is that they do not work and the second is that they are not safe. As such, one of the most important steps in developing a new drug is target identification and validation. A target is a broad term which can be applied to a range of biological entities which may include for example proteins, genes and RNA. A good target needs to be efficacious, safe, meet clinical and commercial needs and, above all, be ‘druggable’. A ‘druggable’ target is accessible to the putative drug molecule, be that a small molecule or larger biologicals and upon binding, elicit a biological response which may be measured both in vitro and in vivo. It is now known that certain target classes are more amenable to small molecule drug discovery, for example, G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), whereas antibodies are good at blocking protein/protein interactions. Good target identification and validation enables increased confidence in the relationship between target and disease and allows us to explore whether target modulation will lead to mechanism-based side effects.

An alternative approach is to use phenotypic screening to identify disease relevant targets. In an elegant experiment, Kurosawa et al. (2008) used a phage-display antibody library to isolate human monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) that bind to the surface of tumour cells. Clones were individually screened by immunostaining and those that preferentially and strongly stained the malignant cells were chosen. The antigens recognized by those clones were isolated by immunoprecipitation and identified by mass spectroscopy. Of 2114 mAbs with unique sequences they identified 21 distinct antigens highly expressed on several carcinomas, some of which may be useful targets for the corresponding carcinoma therapy and several mAbs which may become therapeutic agents.

Target validation

Once identified, the target then needs to be fully prosecuted. Validation techniques range from in vitro tools through the use of whole animal models, to modulation of a desired target in disease patients. While each approach is valid in its own right, confidence in the observed outcome is significantly increased by a multi-validation approach

Antisense technology is a potentially powerful technique which utilizes RNA-like chemically modified oligonucleotides which are designed to be complimentary to a region of a target mRNA molecule (Henning and Beste, 2002). Binding of the antisense oligonucleotide to the target mRNA prevents binding of the translational machinery thereby blocking synthesis of the encoded protein.

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In contrast, transgenic animals are an attractive validation tool as they involve whole animals and allow observation of phenotypic endpoints to elucidate the functional consequence of gene manipulation. In the early days of gene targeting animals were generated that lacked a given gene’s function from inception and throughout their lives. This work yielded great insights into the in vivo functions of a wide range of genes. One such example is through use of the P2X7 knockout mouse to confirm a role for this ion channel in the development and maintenance of neuropathic and inflammatory pain (Chessell et al., 2005).

Monoclonal antibodies are an excellent target validation tool as they interact with a larger region of the target molecule surface, allowing for better discrimination between even closely related targets and often providing higher affinity. In contrast, small molecules are disadvantaged by the need to interact with the often more conserved active site of a target, while antibodies can be selected to bind to unique epitopes. This exquisite specificity is the basis for their lack of non-mechanistic (or ‘off-target’) toxicity – a major advantage over small-molecule drugs.

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