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Adventures in Drug Discovery

Photonics Spectra
Sep 1999
Dan Drollette, Senior Editor

With billions of dollars at stake, pharmaceutical companies go to exotic lengths to find the cures for what ails us. And photonics goes with them.

In the film Medicine Man, Sean Connery lived in a jungle treehouse where he searched for a cure for cancer by studying rain forest plants and animals. Whenever Connery's character wanted to analyze a substance's pharmaceutical possibilities, he just plunked a leaf or a piece of bark into an unidentified, all-purpose desktop machine that instantly told him whether the item cured the disease.

"What Connery was doing was a bit of a laugh but, with the current advance of technology, some form of limited quick-and-dirty analysis in the field may soon become a reality," said Gordon Cragg, head of natural product drug discovery at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md. While the medicine man's machine exists only on the silver screen today, scientists are automating and miniaturizing the real-life laboratory tools of drug discovery on a scale unimaginable a decade ago. Miraculous technology looms on the horizon -- especially if photonics manufacturers start paying attention to the needs of the $60 billion-per-year pharmaceutical industry.

"We're slack-jawed in amazement at what we can do now," said one researcher at a giant pharmaceutical company. Synthetics chemists can create and screen 100,000 compounds per week, where they used to create and screen just one per week, according to George Whitesides, professor of synthetic chemistry at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "Photonics is a key part of making this high-throughput screening work," he said.

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