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Initiative will spur development of effective drugs

OUT WITH THE OLD: The new Initiative in Systems Pharmacology will explore how drugs work in complex living systems with the goal of making drug discovery and development faster, cheaper, and more effective.<br/>Photo by Hal Bergman/iStockPhoto.com

Taking aim at the alarming slowdown in the development of new and lifesaving drugs, HMS is launching the Initiative in Systems Pharmacology, a comprehensive strategy to transform drug discovery by convening biologists, chemists, pharmacologists, physicists, computer scientists, and clinicians to explore together how drugs work in complex systems.

Modern drug discovery has focused on the interaction between a candidate drug and its immediate cellular target. That target is part of a vast and complex biological network, but because studying the drug in the context of a living system is profoundly difficult, scientists have largely avoided this approach.

"Our inability to develop a coherent picture has stymied drug discovery for a long time," says Marc Kirschner, the John Franklin Enders University Professor of Systems Biology and chair of the HMS Department of Systems Biology. "It's as if we have a map of a highway system that contains only small pieces extending a few miles here and there, without any connectivity on a large scale."

A better understanding of the system of biological molecules that controls medically important biological behavior, and the effects of drugs on that system, will help industry identify the best drug targets and biomarkers. This will help to identify the most promising drug candidates earlier, ultimately making drug discovery and development faster, cheaper, and more effective.

Led by Kirschner and systems biology professors Peter Sorger and Tim Mitchison, the initiative will apply the innovative approaches of systems biology, which analyzes specific biological processes within the context of an entire living system, to the understanding and prediction of drug activity. In addition to its research component, the effort will include an educational program to train future leaders in systems pharmacology and therapeutic discovery.

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