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Drug Testers Think Small

by William Wells

If you are looking for a new drug, unwieldy flasks and tubes are out, but worms, single cells and glass chips are in.

Finding a drug used to be simple. Test some chemicals against protein targets thought to be involved in a disease; find the chemical that jams the works of the protein.

Conceptually, drug hunting still works that way. But the low-tech approach to testing was also a time-consuming approach. One-at-a-time test-tube science was not fast enough to keep up with the stream of new protein targets and chemicals. And the drug-discovery pipeline behaves like any other pipeline: a hold-up at one point negates any gain in speed made at another point. With combinatorial chemistry and genomics in place, Roger Tsien of the University of California, San Diego, says that, "there was a gap in the next stage of the food chain." So researchers started thinking creatively, and came up with some strange and unusual ways to plug that gap.


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