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Drug Discovery Research Aims to Develop Medication of the Future

Published on 01 December 2012

Neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia are devastating, and there is currently no cure for either one. But thanks to researchers like John Beale, Ph.D., a great deal of progress is being made in finding drugs that could treat and even prevent these diseases.

Instead of screening thousands of potential drug compounds in the lab, Beale, professor of medicinal chemistry and pharmacognosy, uses the techniques of structural bioinformatics to facilitate the screening process. “If you were to screen compounds in the lab, it would take years to screen a relatively small number,” says Beale. “But with a supercomputer, I can screen 4,000 compounds within 24 hours.”

According to Beale, the process involves calculating the molecular binding properties of potential drug compounds with protein targets, or receptor sites, in computational models. “I select thousands of compounds that I want to test from a database,” he says. “I then use the supercomputer to scan individual potential drugs over the entire surface of the protein. When I find a compound that binds tightly to the protein, I make models of those and determine which are the most stable. These are then selected for chemical testing in the lab.”

Beale’s research partners, Nigel Cairns, Ph.D., in the Department of Neurology at Washington University School of Medicine and Michael Gitcho, Ph.D., in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, take his findings and apply them to biologic systems in the lab. If the compounds test positively in the lab, the group can work on getting a drug company to license them and then eventually test them in humans.

The team has recently discovered a few promising compounds that could translate into potential drugs for treating frontal temporal dementia, a disease that commonly develops early in life and is characterized by thought and communication disorders.

“Something else we’re doing is looking at ways of detecting Alzheimer’s disease earlier, so that we might have a larger window for treatment,” Beale says. “We’re initially using computational methods to do that.”

Expanding research such as this is one of the critical issues of STLCOP 20/20, the College’s strategic plan. “We’re finding that more and more of our students are interested in learning to do research,” Beale says. He is responding to this need by working with a handful of students and training them to help him build models and conduct docking experiments.

He plans to continue exploring drugs for neurodegenerative diseases “because there’s so much need.” Beale also wants to expand the computational capabilities at the College, so he can do even more research and get more students involved.

“I’m excited because we’re bringing a new dimension to the College in terms of a robust drug discovery program,” he says.

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