Making chemistry pay

November 6, 1998

Companies are leading the drug revolution. Kam Patel reports

Southampton University is proposing a new scheme to help universities tackle a serious shortage of expertise in a chemistry technique which is revolutionising drug research programmes in industry.

Called combinatorial chemistry, the technique enables thousands of new molecules to be produced. These molecules are then analysed as a possible basis for the development of new drugs.

The use of the technique is widespread in industry and is regarded as a big advance on cumbersome conventional laboratory techniques which can only generate a tiny fraction of the number of molecules produced by combinatorial chemistry in a given period.

Now Southampton University, which fears universities are lagging behind in this field, wants to build a European Centre for Combinatorial Chemistry. It is seeking Pounds 8 million in backing for the scheme from the Pounds 600 million Joint Infrastructure Fund set up earlier this year by the Wellcome Trust and government.

Mark Bradley, professor of combinatorial chemistry at Southampton, compares the emergence of the technique in recent years to the switch from analogue to digital technology and the superseding of radio valves by silicon chips.

"The technique makes a chemist far more productive and helps drastically to reduce the overall project time for drug discovery programmes, he said. "The problem is industry has raced ahead with the technology but we in universities are lagging behind. This is partly because of problems with finding funds for the equipment needed, but perhaps also because some academics have regarded it as applied work rather than pure basic research and therefore not part of their remit."

The centre will carry out collaborative research work with firms and help with the recruitment of personnel skilled in the technique.

Industrial interest in the initiative is "very strong", added Professor Bradley, who hopes to attract 15-20 firms in collaborative projects at a cost to them of a minimum of Pounds 60,000 a year each over three years. The university itself has earmarked Pounds 200,000 for kick-starting the initiative.

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