SBS Day Two: A Holistic Approach To Drug Discovery #sbs10

I’m blogging from the Society for Biomolecular Sciences conference in Phoenix, the organizers were kind enough to offer two of us complimentary passes. I was surprised that the sessions were separated into disease area, technique, or ‘phenomenon’ (e.g., epigenetics) which seemed a bit curious as well, as I had expected the different types of assay technologies would have been the basis (e.g. HTS, Cell-based). It will be interesting to see how this changes if SBS merges with ALA. Nevertheless, I’ve been spending most of my time in the oncology session, and have been looking for trends to share with you, as that is usually the most valuable thing I take away from conferences.

Over the years, I’ve noticed the evolution of different themes each year at drug discovery conferences. In the kinase area alone, I’ve been going to conferences from before the kinome was sequenced, to the era of differing theories of the efficacy of specific targeting, to today’s somewhat routine screening and questions regarding what will be the ‘next big thing’ (but have we figured them out yet?) I think a major theme of this meeting, and something I’ve seen evolving over the past few years, is the idea that a holistic approach to drug discovery, whereby high-throughput screening is seen as part of the process and not the dominant technology.

Peter Simpson of AstraZeneca talked about the need for quality assays across the spectrum, from eliminating error through acoustic liquid delivery, microfluidic methods, and an standardized ‘uber’ kinase assay to utilizing biophysical and fragment-based technologies to round out the information used for lead discovery and optimization. Indeed, a more holistic approach seems to be the norm, perhaps a response to the tightening of belts we’ve all experienced in this economy.

Part of this holistic approach is the the parallel utilization of cell-based assays, which are becoming an essential and more reliable part of the drug discovery process. Perusing the exhibit floor underlines this theme–I didn’t have to walk far to find many great examples of companies pushing the boundaries to improve cell-based assay technologies. SRU Biosystems launched BIND Scanner, a label-free technology and an instrument/software combination which specializes in analyzing data from samples with low cell numbers, such as primary and stem cells. Perkin Elmer has introduced Operetta, ‘bench-top high content screening.’ Fluxion is a South San Francisco company, has married microfluidics with standard 96-well plates to simulate more physiological conditions for live cell assays. Corning continues to make strides with its Epic label-free system, and has a few interesting posters. On the reagents side, Cellular Dynamics is a Madison, Wisconsin based company based on the research and IP from James Thompson of UW, and they aim to create many types of cells for screening utilizing induced pluripotent stem (iPS). Indeed, the confluence of the increased availability of such reagents and improved instrumentation makes this an exciting time for drug discovery.

As a (former?) scientist, one thing really nags me however. From what I’ve seen, most of the cell-based assays still give a binary answer. In other words, the cell reacts to stimuli or doesn’t, and this is plugged into the ‘old’ HTS-type thinking–hit or no hit (correct me if I’m wrong). I can’t help but think that the next wave, after the growing sophistication of the cell-based technologies, will be another wave of informatics/image analysis, whereby cellular responses are deconvoluted further, yielding more important information from these assays.