News Feature | April 30, 2014

Biological Imaging Advances Help Spot Ineffective Cancer Drugs

By Estel Grace Masangkay


Researchers at the University of Edinburgh said advances in biological imaging techniques could help scientists rule out cancer drugs that are unlikely to work. A review of the leading edge image techniques suggests new approaches for easier identification of ineffective cancer drugs.

New advances in biological imaging now allow scientists to study how investigative drugs work inside living cells to determine efficacy, in real time. Applying such techniques in the early stages of the drug discovery process could improve the success rates of candidate cancer treatments.

“The drug discovery process is hugely expensive and inefficient. In Edinburgh we are leading the way in using biological imaging to streamline the process, allowing us to better select drug candidates with the lowest risk of side effects and the best chances of success in treating patients,” said Neil Carragher of Edinburgh Cancer Research UK Centre at the University of Edinburgh.

Using a technique called phenotypic drug discovery, the researchers track fluorescent dyes through automated microscopes and rapidly test thousands of potential treatments in different cancer cell types. The pioneering approach monitors the effect of a trial drug on the disease as a whole instead of studying impact on an individual target protein, known as target-based approach.

Just five percent of candidate drugs assessed in clinical trials are chosen to receive approval as authorized therapies for patients. Failure to predict which drugs will work in real life as opposed to only in the lab limits the approval rate of investigational drugs. In other cases, seemingly effective and safe drugs cause unexpected side effects that only manifest in the later stages of the development process and fall short of regulatory approval standards.

Pharmaceutical companies and drug makers such as Novartis AG and GlaxoSmithKline have embraced phenotype screening and drug discovery. Others remain committed to using target-based screening, arguing that extensive time and resources are needed to identify the targets of a phenotypic screen.

Scientists assert that the new advances will improve identification and prediction of cancer drugs that have potential in vivo and not only in vitro.

The team’s findings were published online in the journal Nature Reviews Cancer.