Pfizer's Xalkori, others spotlight spoils of computer-aided drug discovery

Computer-designed drugs have come of age. More than two decades after industry pioneer Joshua Boger set sail from Merck to start Vertex Pharmaceuticals ($VRTX) to advance structure-based drug design, the industry has seen multiple drugs discovered with the help of computers reach the finish line with FDA approvals.

The Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Rockoff chronicled the discovery of Pfizer's ($PFE) targeted cancer drug Xalkori, showing how structure-based design was a key tool in fashioning a compound that could home in on the cancer-related protein called c-Met. And while drugmakers haven't yet figured out how to sketch out a winning compound on computers without the need for wet-lab testing, Eli Lilly ($LLY), Vertex and many other companies have integrated structure-based design into the discovery process.

And recent approvals have validated the computer-based approach. Ariad Pharmaceuticals ($ARIA), which wasn't mentioned in the WSJ article, recently won FDA approval for a new leukemia drug known generically as ponatinib, which emerged from the Cambridge, MA-based company's computational and structure-based design platform. Vertex's Boger, whose company has now received multiple approvals for new drugs, has seen the structure-based approach spread across the industry since he got the company going in 1989.

"I felt every project wasn't using all the information available to it, and one of the kinds of information left out most often was the structural information, telling you what a drug was supposed to do," Boger said, as quoted by the WSJ.

The bottom line is that structure-based design marks an evolution from the old hit-or-miss screening methods that were once the best thing going in discovery, but discovery remains heavily reliant on human know-how and luck too, even with the help of computers.

- see the WSJ article

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