This Comprehensive Drug Map Reveals the Course of Future Therapies

When it comes to drug research, the best way to know where you're going is to understand where you've been.

Drugs are one of our primary vehicles against a wide swath of diseases and conditions, and now a study published in the journal Nature Reviews Drug Discovery has provided a map for the mechanisms by which these drugs work and their targets.

The map that the researchers have assembled could lead to future drug development that targets pharmaceutical research blind spots. The researchers open by citing James Black, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, who famously stated that "the most fruitful basis for the discovery of a new drug is to start with an old drug."

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"Drug targets are often poorly defined in the literature," the researchers write in their study, "both for launched drugs and for potential therapeutic agents in discovery and development."

"Maintaining an accurate and up-to-date map of approved drugs and their efficacy targets... is an important activity that will guide future drug development and innovation," they continue.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration licenses 1,578 drugs. To put together their map of available drugs, researchers combined information from the canSAR database at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), the ChEMBL database from the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) in Cambridge and the University of New Mexico's DrugCentral database.

Out of 20,000 human proteins available, these drugs collectively target just 667 individual proteins, or an estimated 3.5 percent. And in fact some 70 percent of mechanism-based drugs work on just four families of proteins. The study also identified an additional 189 drug targets in harmful organisms, such as bacteria, viruses or parasites.

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Determining the various mechanisms and targets of currently available drugs could certainly help identify where one therapy for a specific disease or condition can be used to combat another. But the real opportunity is in research for areas of human biology that are currently overlooked.

Of course any map of available drugs can't remain static. In order to be useful for drug developers, the map requires frequent updates, and the study's authors have assured that they will maintain the data set and keep it accessible to the public.

"Drug discovery and targeting remains a complex, costly and at times unpredictable process," the researchers conclude. But with an understanding of how previous drugs work combined with emerging research about disease and human biology, the scientists write, a whole new generation of medicines could emerge.

Photo: A network diagram showing protein interactions inside a cell carousel. Red and yellow are drug targets. Credit: Bissan Al-Lazikani WATCH VIDEO: Do These Drugs Make You Smarter?