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The future of drug testing?
« on: 12/07/2007 23:51:14 »
(By Jonathan Richards for Times Online)

Scientists are predicting an end to the era of human and animal drug testing, saying that computer models will one day become so advanced that they will be able to predict the body's response to various substances.
The use of computer models would bring "unprecedented benefits" to medicine, and possibly even dispense with the need for drugs altogether, as doctors discovered ways to prompt the body's own immune system to react to threats, rather than introduce artificial remedies, they said.
By building sophisticated computer models which incorporated existing knowledge about an organism, scientists could predict the way the organism would respond to a drug by "switching on and off" various cell functions within the model, and then seeing how the whole system reacted.
Recent work of this type modelling sections of the pancreas had let to a great understanding of diabetes, an Israeli computer scientist said, and a model of the interaction of cancerous cells was also yielding insight into tumour development.
However, to develop a complete computerised model for even a simple organism would take more than ten years, and there would be no end to lab-based drug testing any time soon, he said.
"Biological systems can be modelled and analysed using man-made computerised systems," David Harel, professor of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics at the Weizmann Institute of Science, told a conference in Cambridge. "The challenge is to construct a full, true-to-all-known-facts, four-dimensional model of a multi-cellular organism.
"What this means is that the smartest approach to new drugs may not to be design a new drug at all, but instead to understand the way a biological system works in its environment," he continued. "The potential benefits are unlimited."
Professor Harel demonstrated a computer model of a C.elegans a 1mm-long worm of interest to scientists because it had various systems in common with humans, despite having a relatively small number of cells which helps to explain why certain cells in the worm developed particular functions.
Another model drew on the work of more than 400 research papers to show the interaction of T-cells a type of white blood cell which plays a role in the immune system that had become cancerous.
"This work, which is called 'systems biology', will make it possible to test drugs on computers and not animals," said Stephen Emmott, a visting professor of neural biology at University College London, who is also the head of computational biology at Microsoft Research Cambridge.
"It's also about developing novel therapies for curing disease by finding ways to trigger an immune response which the body wasn't capable of producing without using the blunt instrument of drugs."
Andrew Herbert, managing director of Microsoft Research Cambridge, which was hosting the event in honour of its 10th birthday, said: "Biology and computing science have gotten a lot closer together, to the point where you can now imagine a world where healthcare is based on software that knows about you and your immune system."
Drug trials are enormously costly, and even if they do reach so-called 'phase 3' stage, which normally involves large scale studies on tens of thousands of people, results are not always guaranteed.
In November last year, six men all aged under 40 suffered multiple failure after taking part in trials of an anti-inflammatory drug at a unit in Northwick Park Hospital.

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The future of drug testing?
« on: 12/07/2007 23:51:14 »


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