The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is putting around US$280 million into a network of nine US institutions that will screen for small-molecule probes to explore cell functions as a stepping stone towards new disease therapies.

NIH director Dr Elias Zerhouni said the initiative marked a “new era” for academic and government research in the US, giving NIH-funded scientists access to tools for rapid screening of hundreds of thousands of small molecules against novel biological assays at lower costs than were previously available.

The information generated by the new network “will be important to developing a greater understanding of biology and its complexity, while hopefully discovering novel approaches to therapies and prevention, especially for rare or neglected diseases”, Zerhouni added.

The Molecular Libraries Probe Production Centers Network, which the NIH will fund to the tune of around US$70 million per year over a four-year production phase, is the second phase of a programme launched in 2004 as part of the Molecular Libraries and Imaging Initiative under NIH’s Roadmap for Medical Research. The Roadmap is a series of initiatives aimed at addressing fundamental knowledge gaps in medical research, developing transformative tools and technologies, and /or fostering innovative approaches to complex problems.

The nine institutions to be funded under the latest initiative are: the Burnham Center for Chemical Genomics in La Jolla, California; the Broad Institute Comprehensive Screening Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the NIH Chemical Genomics Center in Bethesda, Maryland; the Comprehensive Center for Chemical Probe Discovery and Optimization in La Jolla; the Johns Hopkins Ion Channel Center in Baltimore, Maryland; the Southern Research Specialized Biocontainment Screening Center in Birmingham, Alabama; the University of New Mexico Center for Molecular Discovery in Albuquerque, New Mexico; the University of Kansas Specialized Chemistry Center in Lawrence, Kansas; and the Vanderbilt Specialized Chemistry Center for Accelerated Probe Development in Nashville, Tennessee.

Using assays solicited by NIH from the research community, these centres will screen a library of more than 300,000 small molecules maintained in the Molecular Libraries Small Molecule Repository in San Francisco by drug discovery company Biofocus DPI. The network will be co-administered on behalf of the NIH by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Human Genome Research Institute.

“Discoveries from genomics and proteomics have given us thousands of new proteins but little understanding of what many of them do in the cell,” noted NIMH director Dr Thomas Insel. “This screening effort will identify small molecules that influence those newly discovered proteins, allowing us to understand how many of them function. And for proteins involved in disease states, today’s small molecule may be tomorrow’s medication.”

As the NIH pointed out, small molecules can be minutely targeted to interact with one site of a cell’s chemical machinery, providing information on a specific step in a cascade of cell functions. In some cases, it added, small molecules may show activity with potential for eventual therapeutic as well as research use, or may identify targets in the cell for the design of future therapies.