Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Rewriting Life

Copycat Cures

Biotech: Protein power, without the problems.

Proteins are key players in the biological processes that determine whether a person is sick or well. So not surprisingly, they form the basis for some of today’s most important and effective drugs. But in some ways, these large, complex biomolecules are far from being the perfect drugs: they’re chewed up in the stomach if taken by mouth, and many of them break down even when injected-severely limiting which proteins can be used. Now a number of biotech companies are reporting progress in designing smaller, more stable molecules that mimic the therapeutic action of proteins, opening the door to completely new drugs, and to the possibility of replacing some painful injections with equally effective pills.

In July, MetaPhore Pharmaceuticals of St. Louis announced the successful safety testing in humans of a “mimetic”-a drug that mimics the action of a human protein. The new drug is a copycat of a natural enzyme that disarms toxic free radicals, and it could eventually be used to treat cancer, arthritis, pain and even the aging process. But beyond all that, the drug demonstrates that a small engineered molecule can, in fact, take the place of a pharmaceutical protein.

Mimicking a protein was an accomplishment considered impossible just a decade ago, says Adrian Whitty, a senior scientist at Cambridge, MA, biotech giant Biogen. Only proteins, he explains, were thought capable of carrying out complex functions like, for example, triggering a chain of events inside a cell by binding to certain receptors on its surface. But in the mid-1990s, several groups showed that smaller molecules, initially found by random screening, could actually do the same job by binding to “hot spots” on those receptors. Since then, researchers have used either screening or computers to find or design more such targeted molecules, giving birth to mimetics.

This story is part of our December 2001 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

A handful of companies have formed to tap mimetics’ potential. Locus Discovery, a Philadelphia-area startup, and Palo Alto, CA’s Affymax each say they have developed mimetics of erythropoietin, biotech’s best-selling protein-based drug, which helps reverse anemia caused by chemotherapy and kidney dialysis. Since erythropoietin must now be injected, a mimetic-based pill would be poised to capture its $6 billion market. If such pills can prove themselves in clinical trials, it could mark the end of painful injections for many patients.

Want to go ad free? No ad blockers needed.

Become an Insider
Already an Insider? Log in.
More from Rewriting Life

Reprogramming our bodies to make us healthier.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.