Teaching Old Drugs New Tricks

Pharmaceutical companies are sitting on a vast trove of drug blueprints that could be applied to fight new diseases. What if we had access to them?

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Even as the medical world makes great advances in drug testing, development cycles can still take years, if not decades. In the case of cystic fibrosis, for instance, scientists were able to detect the disease's molecular cause by as early as 1989 -- but it's taken nearly three decades to push a drug to market.

Could there be a faster way to cures? If NIH director Francis Collins has his way -- perhaps. By studying the human genome and noticing similarities among the molecular effects of certain diseases, Collins believes pharmaceuticals designed to target one affliction can have surprisingly positive effects on other illnesses. We just need to match the right drugs with the right diseases.

"The first drug for HIV/AIDS wasn't developed for HIV/AIDS," said Collins in a lecture at TEDMED, a three-day conference on medicine and health in Washington, D.C. "It was originally developed to fight cancer. It was called AZT."

The same tactic is being applied to progeria, a rare genetic disease that causes rapid aging in children. One of the drugs that's now being clinically tested for progeria wasn't created to fight it -- like AZT, this drug was billed as a cancer medication.

"Turns out it didn't work very well for cancer," said Collins, "but it has exactly the right properties and the right shape to work with progeria."

If pharmaceutical companies can reach an intellectual property agreement with NIH -- "we're making steps," said Collins -- drug development could eventually become at least partly open-sourced, giving older drugs a new lease on life.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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