Fish in droplet

Fishing for Faster Pharmaceutical Answers

By mixing billions of molecules in a flask, an Alberta company hopes to cut the process of discovering new drugs from months to days.


University of Alberta spin-off company 48-Hour Discovery wants to narrow the time to find drug candidates for new disease targets from months to days.

Traditionally, molecules have been screened individually in hopes of finding a few that might work. The cost to discover just one can range from half a million to a million dollars, and the process can take up to six months to complete. Automation has allowed vast libraries of molecules to be screened in parallel, but 48-Hour Discovery takes a different approach.

Instead of testing individual drug candidates side-by-side, the idea is to use a physical mixture of billions of molecules in a single flask. Using the drug target as a molecular lure, the drug candidates that bind most strongly get fished out in a process that only takes hours.

“Many biomedical and pharmaceutical projects require the detection or blocking of harmful molecules in your body, known as targets,” said CEO Ratmir Derda in a statement. “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.”

While this general idea has been around since the mid-20th century, the technology needed to make it a reality is only now emerging. Genome sequencing and big data are helping scientists identify new drug targets more rapidly than ever. Genome sequencing is also key to 48-Hour Discovery’s technology, as each of its potential ligands carries a DNA tag that helps decode which molecules are being fished out.

The company can then provide a list of the top 50 ligands with an estimate of the binding affinity, which is a measure of the strength of the interaction with the target. Those candidates could then be carried forward for more thorough testing to see how they behave.

Beyond identifying the strongest binders on a case-by-case basis, the more target molecules that are tested, the better the system gets. Filtering molecules according to how frequently they match, researchers will also gain insight into which molecules are most specific to their targets.

By lowering the time and cost for the initial steps of drug discovery, this technology could provide a launch point for treating a wide range of medical conditions.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.