We've talked about the NIH's Molecular Libraries Initiative here a few times, mostly in the context of whether it reached its goals, and what might happen now that it looks as if it might go away completely. Does make this item a little surprising?
Almost a decade ago, the US National Institutes of Health kicked off its Molecular Libraries Initiative to provide academic researchers with access to the high-throughput screening tools needed to identify new therapeutic compounds. Europe now seems keen on catching up.
Last month, the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), a €2 billion ($2.6 billion) Brussels-based partnership between the European Commission and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA), invited proposals to build a molecular screening facility for drug discovery in Europe that will combine the inquisitiveness of academic scientists with industry know-how. The IMI's call for tenders says the facility will counter “fragmentation” between these sectors.
I can definitely see the worth in that part of the initiative. Done properly, Screening Is Good. But they'll have to work carefully to make sure that their compound collection is worth screening, and to format the assays so that the results are worth looking at. Both those processes (library generation and high-throughput screening) are susceptible (are they ever) to "garbage in, garbage out" factors, and it's easy to kid yourself into thinking that you're doing something worthwhile just because you're staying so busy and you have so many compounds.
There's another part of this announcement that worries me a bit, though. Try this on for size:
Major pharmaceutical companies have more experience with high-throughput screening than do most academic institutes. Yet companies often limit tests of their closely held candidate chemicals to a fraction of potential disease targets. By pooling chemical libraries and screening against a more diverse set of targets—and identifying more molecular interactions—both academics and pharmaceutical companies stand to gain, says Hugh Laverty, an IMI project manager.
Well, sure, as I said above, Screening Is Good, when it's done right, and we do indeed stand to learn things we didn't know before. But is it really true that we in the industry only look at a "fraction of potential disease targets"? This sounds like someone who's keen to go after a lot of the tough ones; the protein-protein interactions, protein-nucleic acid interactions, and even further afield. Actually, I'd encourage these people to go for it - but with eyes open and brain engaged. The reason that we don't screen against such things as often is that hit rates tend to be very, very low, and even those are full of false positives and noise. In fact, for many of these things, "very, very low" is not distinguishable from "zero". Of course, in theory you just need one good hit, which is why I'm still encouraging people to take a crack. But you should do so knowing the odds, and be ready to give your results some serious scrutiny. If you think that there must be thousands of great things out there that the drug companies are just too lazy (or blinded by the thought of quick profits elsewhere) to pursue, you're not thinking this through well enough.
You might say that what these efforts are looking for are tool compounds, not drug candidates. And I think that's fine; tool compounds are valuable. But if you read that news link in the first paragraph, you'll see that they're already talking about how to manage milestone payments and the like. That makes me think that someone, at any rate, is imagining finding valuable drug candidates from this effort. The problem with that is that if you're screening all the thousands of drug targets that the companies are ignoring, you're by definition working with targets that aren't very validated. So any hits that you do find (and there may not be many, as said above) will still be against something that has a lot of work yet to be done on it. It's a bit early to be wondering how to distribute the cash rewards.
And if you're screening against validated targets, the set of those that don't have any good chemical matter against them already is smaller (and it's smaller for a reason). It's not that there aren't any, though: I'd nominate PTP1B as a well-defined enzymatic target that's just waiting for a good inhibitor to come along to see if it performs as well in humans as it does in, say, knockout mice. (It's both a metabolic target and a potential cancer target as well). Various compounds have been advanced over the years, but it's safe to say that they've been (for the most part) quite ugly and not as selective as they could have been. People are still whacking away at the target.
So any insight into decent-looking selective phosphatase inhibitors would be most welcome. And most unlikely, damn it all, but all great drug ideas are most unlikely. The people putting this initiative together will have a lot to balance.