Speeding up drug discovery

How MSD chemists are working to find new medicines faster

November 20, 2018

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“We aspire to not only make a great impact on our company, but on the entire field of chemistry.”

Emma Parmee

vice president, Head Discovery Chemistry

Across the biopharmaceutical industry, it takes many scientists many years to design, make and test thousands of new molecules in order to find the one or two that may be tested in clinical trials.

For many, the lingering question remains: What can be done to speed up the drug discovery timeline and make it more efficient?

MSD’s Discovery Chemistry team, the scientists who design, make and test new molecules in the hopes of finding new drug candidates, is working hard at — and investing in — doing just that.

MSD chemist

Speeding up the future

Since the earliest days of MSD, our labs have pioneered new methods of chemical synthesis. These capabilities laid the foundation for our leadership in research and development.

Technicians using the staubli machine

Advancing our chemistry capabilities remains a focus of improving our drug discovery efforts. Recently, MSD scientists published a series of papers in top scientific journals describing new techniques that allow for the synthesis of new chemical matter on a miniature, or nanomole scale (think a bead of liquid the size of a needle point). By scaling down this process, the team is able to make and screen new molecules in a high-throughput manner, greatly speeding up the process.

Lab technicians reviewing synthesis results

We have invested in new state-of-the-art laboratories to expand our miniaturized ultra-high-throughput synthesis and automation capabilities. With these new tools, the speed of synthesis is not only hundreds of times faster, but also uses only a fraction of materials, compared to conventional methods, saving time and precious resources.

Why is there a need for speed?

“When we set out to design new molecules, we work in a chemical space with novemdecillion possibilities,” says Spencer Dreher, principal scientist, High Throughput Experimentation and Lead Discovery Capabilities. (A “novemdecillion” is a 10 with 60 zeros.)

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“We're aiming to accelerate the design, make and test cycle in small-molecule drug discovery to deliver results faster."

Spencer Dreher

principal scientist, High Throughput Experimentation and Lead Discovery Capabilities

While these new methods for ultra-high-throughput compound synthesis are indeed faster, this doesn’t mean we can’t push the process even more. The ultimate goal? “One day, we hope to enable the seamless integration of chemical synthesis with a biological screen. This would allow us to make and test molecules for activity against specific targets faster and more efficiently,” adds Spencer.

Streamlining the hunt for new drug candidates

Recently, our Discovery teams discovered new methods to test the potency of new compounds, also using a miniaturized platform. This new approach is hundreds of times faster than existing methods and uses very small amounts of material (this invention and early results were highlighted in the prestigious scientific publication Nature).

Berengere Sauvagnat, an associate principal scientist, Pharmacology, was the co-author on the Nature article and one of the primary researchers on this new process. “By merging our miniaturized synthesis platform with a biochemical assay, we hope to streamline the hunt for new drug candidates,” she notes. “We are excited by early evidence suggesting that we are on a path to reducing the number of steps in the drug discovery process.”

“We aspire to have a greater impact on our company and on the field of chemistry than at any other time in our history,” says Emma Parmee, vice president, Head Discovery Chemistry. “I’m excited by the direction our journey is heading and hopeful that our discoveries will lead to new options for patients.”