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European Biopharmaceutical Review

Why is it Still Drug Discovery?

Matthew Segall at the ADMET Division, BioFocus DPI, explores the balance between luck and judgement in drug discovery

Estimates for average costs and durations vary, but a reasonable approximation puts the typical duration for bringing a drug to market at 12-15 years (1) and the average cost at over $800 million (2). The reason for this is that the process is dominated by failure, with a high attrition rate of compounds and projects, even in the later and most expensive clinical phases. Therefore, the majority of the cost is associated with compounds and projects that never result in a marketed drug.

Pharmaceutical R&D is conventionally divided into three phases, as illustrated in Figure 1. Although the exact definitions of these phases may vary and the boundaries are blurred, they may broadly be described as; target discovery, drug discovery and drug development. In this article, we focus on the drug discovery phase for small molecule drugs – those with a molecular weight less than around 800Da.

DRUG DISCOVERY VERSUS DRUG DESIGN

It is interesting to note that the middle phase is termed drug discovery, which suggests a search for a solution among many possibilities and with a certain element of speculation. This is in contrast to a design process, which implies a rational process by which a small number of optimal solutions are constructed ab initio. The high attrition rates of the current state-of-the-art suggest that drug discovery has not yet become drug design. Why is this, given recent industry trends that have emphasised techniques such as ‘rational drug design’ (3), ‘structure-based drug design’ (4), and ‘de novo drug design’ (5)?


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Matthew Segall is Senior Director of the ADMET group of BioFocus DPI. He has a MSc in Computation from the University of Oxford and a PhD in Theoretical Physics from the University of Cambridge, with three years postdoctoral experience in the Cavendish Laboratory pioneering the use of first principles quantum mechanical modelling in the study of biological systems. In 2001 he joined Camitro (UK) working on the development of predictive models of drug metabolism. Following a merger with ArQule, he led the informatics team in developing state-of-the-art intuitive ADME decision and visualisation tools, while continuing to work on quantum-based ADME models. After the Cambridge-based ADME group joined Inpharmatica in 2003, he led the In Silico Optimisation group in developing StarDropTM. Since January 2006, he has managed the ADME/PK business for BioFocus DPI (formerly Inpharmatica), which combines experimental and in silico approaches to ADME optimisation in drug discovery.
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