“We’re evolving towards systems pharmacology”
A theoretical chemist by training, Jordi Mestres started up the chemogenomics lab of the IMIM, currently part of the GRIB, in 2003. The structure of the group, made up of graduates and doctors in chemistry, biology, biotechnology and computer science, perfectly reflects its three main lines of research: molecules, proteins and programming to predict the interaction between them.
“We apply our predictions to both drug discovery and chemical biology”, summarises Mestres. This last discipline consists of using small molecules to sound out biology, for example inhibiting a protein to understand its function. According to the scientist from Girona the optimisation of these chemical probes is just as important as that for drugs. “They have been used for years as if they were selective for a single target protein, but now we are beginning to understand that they are not.”
In fact, drugs do not owe their effectiveness to the fact that they are very selective for a single target, rather to their affinity for a whole group of proteins. “We are evolving towards systems pharmacology, where the drug is placed in the context of all of the proteins with which it can potentially interact, the organs it can reach, the polymorphisms of the person that takes the drug, and so on”, explains the head of the group.
A multitude of projects
The laboratory is involved in several European projects, including Open PHACTS, where they have developed an interactive tool to show ligand-protein interactions via the web (www.pharmatrek.org), and eTOX coordinated by Ferran Sanz (GRIB), where they design new methods to predict drug safety profiles. “Drug safety profiles are not really known until they are on sale and the drug is exposed to millions of users. If we were able to anticipate any adverse effects before entering the market and we understood the mechanisms, we could modify the structure of the drug in advance”, reasons Mestres.
They also look at ethnopharmacology, and try to explain how medicinal plants work. “We have made predictions for 109 plants and we are trying to rationalise their use for cardiovascular disease.”
In collaboration with Pilar Navarro (IMIM) they have found molecules inhibiting the formation of b-amyloid plaques that work as well or better than memantine, an Alzheimer’s drug. The research was funded by a pharmaceutical company and has generated two patents. In total, the group has four patents in collaboration with companies and one with the CSIC.
The creation of a spin-off
In some cases, they are asked by companies or other groups to prioritise which molecules to use at the beginning of a research project or to predict the proteins of active molecules in phenotypic trials. This was the origin of Chemotargets, in 2006, where currently three people work. “The students who were doing this could not publish anything, so we created this spin-off service”, explains the head of the group.
Chemotargets is still going and has quite a lot of work. They are currently designing the screening collection for the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, with more than 10,000 molecules. They did something similar for the CRG, creating a list of small molecules that interact with proteins of interest to the researchers. Lately, they have also been contracted by the Swiss foundation ‘Medicines for Malaria Venture’ (MMV) to investigate the action of 400 antimalarials identified in phenotypic tests. “Chemotargets predicts targets for each molecule. Afterwards it is necessary to confirm the predictions experimentally, and this work is usually outsourced”.
It is, according to Mestres, the future of drug design. “Everything will be done from an office in a skyscraper in Manhattan or London, outsourcing molecule design to companies like Chemotargets, synthesis to a chemical company in China, and the trial to a pharmacology firm in India”, he predicts. “In fact it is already happening with the big pharmaceutical companies -they close their research centres, but do not abandon projects: they subcontract them out”.