When only the fittest drugs survive

By Charles Seife in Washington DC FINDING the right drug could become as easy as sitting back and letting evolution take its course. Chemists in the US say they have automated a process that makes a mixed bag of molecules evolve into just one type, the “fittest” for binding to a chosen target molecule. Many chemists are pinning their hopes for new drug design on combinatorial chemistry, which involves creating a “library” of hundreds or thousands of molecules and finding out which one sticks to a target molecule in the desired way. But testing the myriad molecules to see which works is time-consuming. Now Alexey Eliseev and Marina Nelen, chemists at the University of Buffalo in New York, have demonstrated a way to turn the chemical library into a “habitat” where only the successful molecules survive. They used different forms of the molecule methylguanidium, which can arrange itself in three ways with respect to its rigid double bonds. First, they passed a mixture of the three molecules over a substrate of target molecules, to which only one of the methylguanidium shapes could bind. The remaining molecules were carried on to a chamber where they were zapped with ultraviolet light. This randomly changed or “mutated” the methylguanidium molecules from one shape to another, creating more of the “fit” binding molecules. Repeating this process over and over again eventually “killed off” all the poorly binding molecules, while all the tightly binding ones were trapped, the researchers say in Chemistry: A European Journal (vol 4, p 825). A quick rinse with a solvent freed the evolved molecules from the substrate. “It’s very useful for discovering how molecules bond,” says Benjamin Miller,
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