Quick Discovery

Patients and Public

Our goal is to deliver new medicines for people. The process of making new medicines is a long and expensive journey. It needs expertise from a huge range of scientists and organisations. There are many steps, and each one has a high risk of failure.

Scientific research continually unearths new discoveries about how diseases work. Our mission is to translate these newly discovered biological processes into potential medicines. We refer to these as ‘compounds’ at this stage.

The drug discovery process itself begins with a search for a chemical starting point. This is a molecule that has some effect on the potential drug target identified by disease researchers.

  • The drug molecule is often a small chemical compound
  • The target is usually a protein in a human or disease-causing organism cell. This protein, and the work it does, are essential for the cell to live.

The most common method for finding this starting point is called ‘diversity-screening’. In the DDU, we are able to do this very quickly, with many compounds. We refer to this as ‘high-throughput screening’. We incubate our disease cells with hundreds of thousands of different chemical compounds. If the compounds affect the disease cells, we investigate further to find out if it has bound to our target. We call this a ‘hit’, and take the hit compounds on for further study.

Ironically, the term 'drug discovery' is something of a misnomer. After the initial stage of identifying hits, we become more akin to engineers than treasure hunters. We make new compounds that have never been made before. It is not enough for a given compound to affect the target in the desired way. To be successful as a drug, we need to ensure many things. A good medicine must:

  • get into a person’s body (say, in a pill), and reach the correct organ or tissue.
  • remain there at the needed concentration long enough to do its work
  • be flushed from the body without toxic effects.

With so many challenges to confront researchers must design and create, rather than find, the right compound.

The cycle of drug discovery

We work in a cycle of design-make-test, which we repeat many times for each project. Chemists, both computational and medicinal, take the initial hit compound and design many variations. With their expertise, they are able to add or remove atoms, or groups of them, to the compound to change how it functions. While they can theorise about what should happen, there is no substitute for making and testing their new compound. Our biologists study what happens to both our disease cells, and how the compound might behave in the human body. As results become clear, biologists report their findings back to chemists, who continue to refine the compound.

The cycle continues until one of two outcomes happens. Most often, it becomes clear that no compound which fulfils all the criteria can be made, in which case we end the project. Alternatively, we may be able to generate a compound that does tick all the boxes.

At this exciting stage, we begin to refer to the compound as a ‘preclinical candidate’. There are still many challenges for the candidate to face, though. If it can pass through toxicology tests and ‘First In Human’ studies successful, it moves on to the clinical trials phase.

For this, we collaborate extensively with our international network of partners. These world-leading organisations include the Medicines for Malaria Venture and the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative. We also partner with global pharmaceutical companies for further development.

In this way, over many years, we go from a molecule in a lab in Dundee to a medicine, saving people’s lives.