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What is label-free screening and why use it in drug discovery?

18 December 2012  •  Author(s): Matthew A. Cooper and Reena Halai, Institute for Molecular Bioscience, the University of Queensland

In the journey of a molecule from its origins in a compound library to candidate drug status, a large variety of profiling must occur to define activity, selectivity, potency, adverse effects, pharmacology and in vivo efficacy. Advances in biophysical methods that can analyse drug interactions with a molecular target, a whole cell, or even ex vivo tissue have enabled many of these studies to be carried out without the need for reporter-based or ‘labelled’ assays. Label-free screening in high-throughput mode can be used as a pathway independent screening tool with whole cells, or in low-throughput mode with individual receptors to define interaction kinetics and thermodynamics. We highlight advances in optical and impedance-based biosensors, and examine their utility and suitability for various stages of the drug discovery process.

In the early to mid 20th century, drug discovery was a far more productive industry, and more drugs were launched per Pharma employee than today. The regulatory pathway that pre-empted the launch of a new drug was concise and easy to understand, and applications were dealt with expeditiously with a fraction of the supporting data required today. The process of discovery was also very different; it was driven largely by individuals in small teams who were prepared for serendipity, or by individuals with a very clear, defined hypothesis who drove rational drug design. Screening technologies could be summed up on one or two pages of a review; a dozen or so primary assays, some basic biochemistry to define ligand mode of action, perhaps some live cell work and a proof of concept demonstration in vivo.

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