Enzymes and Drug Discovery

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Drug Discovery by Looking for Inhibitors of Key Enzymes in Specific Pathways

Enzymes are key components of metabolic pathways. In fact, understanding how enzymes work and how they can be regulated is a key principle behind the development of many of the pharmaceutical drugs (see image below) on the market today. Biologists working in this field collaborate with other scientists, usually chemists, to design drugs.

Enzymes and Drug Discovery

Have you ever wondered how pharmaceutical drugs are developed? Image credit: Deborah Austin

Consider statins for example—which is the name given to the class of drugs that reduces cholesterol levels. These compounds are essentially inhibitors of the enzyme HMG-CoA reductase. HMG-CoA reductase is the enzyme that synthesizes cholesterol from lipids in the body. By inhibiting this enzyme, the levels of cholesterol synthesized in the body can be reduced.

Similarly, acetaminophen, popularly marketed under the brand name Tylenol, is an inhibitor of the enzyme cyclooxygenase. While it is effective in providing relief from fever and inflammation (pain), its mechanism of action is still not completely understood.

How are drugs developed?

How are drugs developed? One of the first challenges in drug development is identifying the specific molecule that the drug is intended to target. In the case of statins, HMG-CoA reductase is the drug target. Drug targets are identified through painstaking research in the laboratory. Identifying the target alone is not sufficient; scientists also need to know how the target acts inside the cell and which reactions go awry in the case of disease. Once the target and the pathway are identified, then the actual process of drug design begins.

During this stage, chemists and biologists work together to design and synthesize molecules that can either block or activate a particular reaction. However, this is only the beginning: both if and when a drug prototype is successful in performing its function, then it must undergo many tests from in vitro experiments to clinical trials before it can get approval to be on the market.

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