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What Does Systems Biology Mean for Drug Development?

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The complexity and flexibility of cellular architectures is increasingly recognized by impressive progress on the side of molecular analytics, i.e. proteomics, genomics and metabolomics. One of the messages from systems biology is that the number of molecular species in cellular networks is orders of magnitude bigger than anticipated by genomic analysis, in particular by fast posttranslational modifications of proteins. The requirements to manage external signals, integrate spatiotemporal signal transduction inside an organism and at the same time optimizing networks of biochemical and chemical reactions result in chemically extremely fine tuned molecular entities. Chemical side reactions of enzymatic activity, like e.g. random oxidative damage of proteins by free radicals during aging constantly introduce epigenetic alterations of protein targets. These events gradually and on an individual stochastic scale, keep modifying activities of these targets, and their affinities and selectivities towards biological and pharmacological ligands.

One further message is that many of the key reactions in living systems are essentially based on interactions of low affinities and even low selectivities. This principle is responsible for the enormous flexibility and redundancy of cellular circuitries. So, in complex disorders like cancer or neurodegenerative diseases, which are rooted in relatively subtle and multimodal dysfunction of important physiologic pathways, drug discovery programs based on the concept of high affinity/high specificity compounds (“one-target, one-disease”), which still dominate the pharmaceutical industry increasingly turn out to be unsuccessful. Despite improvements in rational drug design and high throughput screening methods, the number of novel, single-target drugs fell much behind expectations during the past decade and the treatment of “complex diseases” remains a most pressing medical need.

Currently a change of paradigm can be observed with regard to a new focus on agents that modulate multiple targets simultaneously. Targeting cellular function as a system rather than on the level of the single protein molecule significantly increases the size of the drugable proteome and is expected to introduce novel classes of multi-target drugs with fewer adverse effects and toxicity. Multiple target approaches have recently been used to design medications against atherosclerosis, cancer, depression, psychosis and neurodegenerative diseases.

A focussed approach towards “systemic” drugs will certainly require the development of novel computational and mathematical concepts for appropriate modelling of complex data and extraction of “screenable” information from biological systems essentially ruled by deterministic chaotic processes on a background of individual stochasticity.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: ProteoSys AG, Carl-Zeiss-Str. 51, D-55129 Mainz, Germany.

Publication date: 2008-06-01

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