Drugs By Design

Thanks to genetics, the pharmaceutical industry is exploding with new ideas

By Christine Gorman Monday, Jan. 11, 1999

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All drugs have some side effects. By scanning a patient’s genetic profile, drug companies may soon be able to figure out ahead of time who is most likely to suffer an adverse reaction. Case in point: Abbott Laboratories has an experimental treatment for asthma that triggers liver abnormalities in about 3% of patients. But it seems to work pretty well in everyone else. So Abbott has asked the French company Genset to see if it can develop a genetic profile of those patients who should never take the medication. The technology isn’t foolproof, but it may give Abbott the tools with which to market its drug more safely.

Knowing what’s in your genes could also take some of the routine guesswork out of medicine. If you’re diagnosed with high blood pressure, for example, your doctor may have to try three or four different pills before finding one that works for you. That’s because blood pressure is controlled by probably dozens of different genes, any one (or more) of which may be responsible for your particular condition. By screening your DNA and comparing your genetic profile to those of patients who have already responded to particular medications, your doctor may be able to prescribe the right drug the first time around. The money you save would come at the expense of the drug companies, of course, since they would no longer profit from any trial-run prescriptions.


Focusing on one or two genes and the proteins they code for has already started paying off in the search for new medicines. But the future of drug discovery is going to be centered on a better understanding of complex biological networks like the brain and the immune system. “The only way you can understand complex systems is to look at many genes and proteins at a time,” says Lee Hood, chairman of molecular biotechnology at the University of Washington in Seattle. How many? Perhaps 1,000, or 10,000, or even 100,000.

Enter the microchip. Just as chips made of silicon allow computers to process millions of bits of information at a time, chips that process or even incorporate fragments of DNA will one day analyze millions of genetic sequences simultaneously. Patterns that would otherwise take decades to discern could show up in minutes on a gene chip. Doctors will use gene chips to screen their patients for thousands of genetic defects at once. Pharmaceutical researchers will use them to identify which genes are turned on or off in any given disease or system of the body and therefore might make good targets for drug development.

At least that’s the theory. Gene chips are so far out on the cutting edge that even many scientists have a hard time believing they’ll work. Steve Fodor, CEO of Affymetrix, is used to addressing such doubts. His company, based in Santa Clara, Calif., is widely regarded as the leader in developing gene chips. “We’ve had to define a lot of new technology, terminology and applications,” he says. “But a fantastic new field has sprung up.”

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