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‘First step’ to perfect drug combinations

24 October 2011

Scientists funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council at The University of Manchester have discovered a way of speeding up the creation of perfect drug combinations, which could help patients recovering from critical health problems such as stroke, heart attacks and cancer.

The researchers found a way of identifying ideal drug combinations from billions of others which would prevent inflammation from occurring.

The findings, published in Nature Chemical Biology, could be the first step in the development of new drug combinations to combat severe diseases and conditions.

Most non-infectious disease, such as cancer, stroke and Alzheimer's are worsened by inflammation, which is the body's natural defence mechanism.

Inflammation has evolved to help fight infection but can also be very damaging in long term disease, prolonging suffering and ultimately risking premature death.

After a stroke, the body reacts to the injury as if it were an infection, causing further damage. By blocking the inflammation, the chances of survival or higher quality of life following a stroke are thus greatly enhanced. This can be achieved by quickly and effectively identifying combinations of drugs which can be used together.

Existing 'clot-busting' stroke drugs are only effective if administered within three hours after the stroke - often very difficult to achieve as people are often unaware they are having a stroke - and even then do not completely solve the problem, often leaving sufferers with serious disabilities.

However, using ideal drug combinations the researchers suggest they can block inflammation and therefore greatly reduce the damage caused by non-communicable diseases such as stroke.

Although the researchers have initially concentrated on stroke, they believe the process can be applied to all drugs and for a huge variety of diseases.

The multi-disciplinary team of researchers, led by Professor Douglas Kell, Professor of Bioanalytical Science at The University of Manchester, developed an evolutionary computer programme which rapidly sifted through nine billion different combinations of potential drugs.

Sorting and testing 50 drug combinations at a time using robotics in the laboratory, the scientists were able to find effective combinations and then refine them as many times as necessary to find ideal combinations.

Ultimately, they hope this will lead to the development of tailored therapies for treating inflammation.

Professor Kell, who is also Chief Executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, said: "Most diseases have complex causes. This makes their analysis a problem of systems biology, and to find novel therapies multiple targets need to be attacked at once.

"We have devised a strategy, based on Darwinian evolution, to make this considerably easier. Although our immediate interest is inflammation and conditions such as stroke, our approach is universal and is thus applicable to all complex diseases."

Another advantage of choosing ideal drug combinations is that it allows patients to take smaller doses, which reduces potential toxicology concerns.

Professor Kell and his team worked with computer scientists at the University to create the programme. Professor Pedro Mendes explains: "Our experiments were guided by software that is based on an evolutionary algorithm. The algorithm suggests new drug combinations from previous ones by re-mixing their components - much like the DNA of a child is a mix of that of their parents.

"The new drug combinations are then tested and the best are selected to continue generating new ones. In each experiment we tested 50 drug combinations, then the software would tell us which new ones to test in the next experiment."

This work was funded by a grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to Professor Pedro Mendes and Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell. Funding for studentships and fellowships was provided by BBSRC, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Wellcome Trust.

ENDS

Notes to editors

Professor Kell, Professor Mendes and other members of the team are available for interview on request.

Technical images are available from the Press Office.

The paper, Efficient discovery of anti-inflammatory small-molecule combinations using evolutionary computing, by Ben G Small, Barry W McColl, Richard Allmendinger, Jürgen Pahle, Gloria López-Castejón, Nancy J Rothwell, Joshua Knowles, Pedro Mendes, David Brough and Douglas B Kell, is available from the Press Office on request.

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk .
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes .

External contact

Daniel Cochlin, Media Relations Officer, The University of Manchester

tel: 0161 275 8387