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Combinatorial Chemistry

Making More Drugs

by William Wells

Combinatorial chemistry promises better drugs, new superconductors and an artificial nose, all with a one-thousand-fold increase in productivity. Who could resist?

Detection of benzene
by the artificial nose.
Tony Czarnik is a chemist, but he is also the proud founder of the artificial nose company. Illumina Inc. (San Diego, Calif.) will make sensors capable of detecting all manner of medically important molecules and environmental toxins (see image at left). The prototype nose, developed by David Walt and John Kauer at Tufts University in Boston, Mass., is already capable of sniffing out the explosives in land mines.

What made it all possible is combinatorial chemistry. Designing chemicals that change color when other chemicals attach themselves (the basis of the artificial nose) is difficult, if not impossible, to do rationally. The only alternative is brute-force testing of thousands or millions of possible chemicals until you find the right one.

Before you can test this multitude of chemicals you need to make them. Unfortunately, traditional chemistry is slow. The construction of each new chemical is like an adventure in haute cuisine -- tweak the amount of this ingredient, adjust the temperature, add a new spice. Each chemist at a drug company used to be happy to produce a handful of new chemicals each year.

No more. The modern chemist, at Illumina and drug companies worldwide, churns out thousands of potential new nose-sensors or drugs every year, sometimes as many as a million. The key technology is combinatorial chemistry.


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