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Synthetic peptide molecules open the way for new drugs

Researchers at the University of Washington have discovered how to create peptide molecules that can slip through membranes to enter cells — and they’ve also created a company to take advantage of the discovery for drug development.

The findings, which were published today in the journal Cell, could eventually lead to new types of oral medications for health disorders ranging from COVID-19 to cancer.

“This new ability to design membrane-permeable peptides with high structural accuracy opens the door to a new class of medicines that combine the advantages of traditional small-molecule drugs and larger protein therapeutics,” senior study author David Baker, a biochemist at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said in a news release.

Small-molecule drugs — for example, aspirin — are small enough to slip through cell membranes to do their work. Protein therapeutics — for example, monoclonal antibodies — can target more complex ailments, but the protein molecules are typically too big to wedge their way through lipid-based cell walls.

Peptide drugs are made from the same building blocks as protein, and offer many of the advantages of protein-based drugs. They can bind protein targets in the body more precisely than small-molecule drugs, promising fewer side effects.

“We know that peptides can be excellent medicines, but a big problem is that they don’t get into cells,” said study lead author Gaurav Bhardwaj, an assistant professor of medicinal chemistry at the UW School of Pharmacy. “There are a lot of great drug targets inside our cells, and if we can get in there, that space opens up.”

The newly reported experiments used a couple of molecular design techniques to create types of peptide molecules that can get into cells more easily.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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