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Systems Biology may Speed up the Drug Design Process

written by: Emma Lloyd•edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski•updated: 12/15/2008

Few scientific breakthroughs end up producing new treatments for human diseases, but a systems biology approach to science may help change that.

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    Nearly every day, the news includes stories about incredible new breakthroughs in medical science – new treatments for cancer, diabetes, or infectious diseases – but so few of these apparent breakthroughs actually end up producing any new treatments for such diseases. And even if a genuine breakthrough does occur, it’s typically a matter of five to ten years of clinical development before new treatments are available to the public.

    Systems biology, a new field of science which adopts an integrationist, rather than reductionist approach, might one day change all of this, providing a means of getting clearer answers to biological problems, and even spending up clinical development of new drugs.

    The standard scientific method follows a reductionist approach: remove as many variables as possible from an experimental model, until you are left with a small number of core elements. The problem is, reducing a complex biological system – an entire organism – to a few core elements means a great deal of important information can be lost, even including information which might be relevant to the problem being studied.

    In terms of drug design, this is particularly important. Medical research in drug development is geared towards producing new drugs that are safe as well as effective. And a reductionist approach can easily produce potential drugs that don’t work, or have dangerous side effects – after years of clinical development, with millions or even billions of dollars spent. This type of approach can waste a vast amount of time and money.

    So clearly, the reductionist approach isn’t entirely workable, at least not for modern drug development. Enter systems biology, an approach in which an entire organism or system is the focus, rather than one or two elements of it. Systems biology may not only be used to speed up the drug design process itself, but also to vastly enhance our store of knowledge of interactions between genes, proteins, and all the other elements of a human system. This background knowledge, in itself, will be of enormous use in medical science overall, as well as in drug design.

    One example of such an approach is a practice called micro-dosing, in which human volunteers are dosed with a tiny amount of an experimental drug – enough to cause a small-scale reaction, but not enough to cause toxicity. By looking at the effects of the drug in a human biological system, researchers get a much better idea of its potential side effects, with virtually no risk to the volunteer. This approach helps to eliminate the potential pitfalls of looking at drug effects in vitro, and of using experimental animals, an issue which has its own set of practical and ethical problems.

    References and Further Reading

    European Science Foundation

    Systems Biology, the 21stCentury Science