Doing for chemical research what Google did for search tools

UAlberta spinoff company has potential to completely rework chemical research-especially for pharmaceuticals.

Katie Willis - 11 October 2017

A new UAlberta spinoff company has the potential to radically transform the process of chemical research by uniting the power of big data with the world of molecular discovery.

The concept, explained 48Hour Discovery founder and UAlberta chemist Ratmir Derda, is simple.

"Many biomedical and pharmaceutical projects require the detection or blocking of harmful molecules in your body, known as targets," said Derda, associate professor of chemistry. "The molecules that do this detection or blocking are called ligands. Ligands are the fundamental starting point for the development of pharmaceutical drugs and diagnostic tools."

Clients provide their target molecules and, 48 hours later, Derda's team returns with the ligand structures that bind to that target.

Molecular Internet

The model is built on two platforms: a molecular internet and an effective search engine tool.

"For us, the molecular Internet takes the form of a physical flask in which there are billions of molecules, each with a unique DNA tag," explained Derda. "Searching through this molecular internet is a fishing process: we place the target into the same flask and lure it out. The most potent molecules bind to the target and are fished out of the mixture."

Using the DNA tag associated with each molecule, the team uses next-generation DNA sequencing to track, identify, and prioritize their results.

Speed and accuracy

This method, sifting through billions of molecules compounds at once, has the potential to replace the traditional means of molecular discovery in which researchers have to test potential ligands individually, one at a time. The revolutionary service will be of interest to academics and industry, especially pharmaceutical companies.

"We'd like to make this service accessible and affordable for anyone in academia or industry; our goal is to enable new projects and ventures that build on specific molecular interaction" said Derda, who is in the midst of a year-long sabbatical to set up the company.