Pharmaceutical and biotech firms, which spend billions of dollars every year searching for new drugs, keep an eye open for technologies to make their drug screening more fruitful. Chemists at the University of Chicago report a new screening method, which they've already used to identify a candidate compound for treating anthrax.
The discovery of new drugs is a tedious process with many complicated steps, says lead investigator Milan Mrksich. Most screening of chemicals relies on fluorescent labels that indicate when a chemical binds to a disease-related protein or some other target molecule. Because these labels can interfere with the activity of the target, however, the strategy is vulnerable to false positives, pointing to chemicals that turn out to be useless, says Mrksich. The problem stems from the size of the labels. "It's like having a 6-foot-wide mirror attached to the side of your car," he says.