Finding novel pharmaceuticals in the systems biology era using multiple effective drug targets, phenotypic screening and knowledge of transporters: where drug discovery went wrong and how to fix it

FEBS J. 2013 Dec;280(23):5957-80. doi: 10.1111/febs.12268. Epub 2013 Apr 22.


Despite the sequencing of the human genome, the rate of innovative and successful drug discovery in the pharmaceutical industry has continued to decrease. Leaving aside regulatory matters, the fundamental and interlinked intellectual issues proposed to be largely responsible for this are: (a) the move from 'function-first' to 'target-first' methods of screening and drug discovery; (b) the belief that successful drugs should and do interact solely with single, individual targets, despite natural evolution's selection for biochemical networks that are robust to individual parameter changes; (c) an over-reliance on the rule-of-5 to constrain biophysical and chemical properties of drug libraries; (d) the general abandoning of natural products that do not obey the rule-of-5; (e) an incorrect belief that drugs diffuse passively into (and presumably out of) cells across the bilayers portions of membranes, according to their lipophilicity; (f) a widespread failure to recognize the overwhelmingly important role of proteinaceous transporters, as well as their expression profiles, in determining drug distribution in and between different tissues and individual patients; and (g) the general failure to use engineering principles to model biology in parallel with performing 'wet' experiments, such that 'what if?' experiments can be performed in silico to assess the likely success of any strategy. These facts/ideas are illustrated with a reasonably extensive literature review. Success in turning round drug discovery consequently requires: (a) decent systems biology models of human biochemical networks; (b) the use of these (iteratively with experiments) to model how drugs need to interact with multiple targets to have substantive effects on the phenotype; (c) the adoption of polypharmacology and/or cocktails of drugs as a desirable goal in itself; (d) the incorporation of drug transporters into systems biology models, en route to full and multiscale systems biology models that incorporate drug absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion; (e) a return to 'function-first' or phenotypic screening; and (f) novel methods for inferring modes of action by measuring the properties on system variables at all levels of the 'omes. Such a strategy offers the opportunity of achieving a state where we can hope to predict biological processes and the effect of pharmaceutical agents upon them. Consequently, this should both lower attrition rates and raise the rates of discovery of effective drugs substantially.

Keywords: drug discovery; drug resistance; drug transporters; enzyme kinetics; expression profiling; genomics; polypharmacology; promiscuity; robustness.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Drug Design*
  • Drug Discovery*
  • Drug Evaluation, Preclinical*
  • Drug Industry
  • Humans
  • Membrane Transport Proteins / metabolism*
  • Models, Biological
  • Systems Biology*


  • Membrane Transport Proteins