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Infinite Drug Diversity

New chemical-synthesis methods help researchers build more varied and complex drug candidates.

The genomics revolution has provided innumerable potential targets for new drugs. But many of these disease-causing proteins seem to be “undruggable”: companies can’t find compounds that inhibit them. Into this breach comes Boston startup Infinity Pharmaceuticals, which plans to use new chemical-synthesis methods to build more varied and complex drug candidates than have previously been possible.

Infinity’s technique, pioneered by Harvard University chemist and company cofounder Stuart Schreiber, involves binding simple starting compounds to hosts of small plastic supports. The compounds acquire new chemical groups as they are exposed to a series of carefully chosen solutions; the supports are separated at various steps, producing smaller collections bearing unique chemicals. Such reactions are easier to track than those performed in solution and can yield a wide variety of products.

Infinity’s pedigree is impressive. Richard Klausner, former head of the National Cancer Institute, and Eric Lander, the cofounder of genomics pioneer Millennium Pharmaceuticals, are scientific advisors. Steven Holtzman, Millennium’s longtime chief financial officer, says he left to become president and CEO of Infinity because “I felt that perfecting that biological revolution required a revolution in chemistryAnd I felt this platform had the best chance.”

Infinity is focusing first on drugs for diabetes, inflammation, cancer and bacterial infections. “At the very least, it will be a more diverse set of compounds to test,”says Brent Stockwell, a chemist at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, MA. “But perhaps they’ll even be better.” That would give drugmakers a cornucopia to rival the biologists’.

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