US scientists have produced a giant medical search engine designed to speed up the development of new drug treatments.

The team from MIT and Harvard says its new database can connect human diseases with potential drugs to treat them, as well as predict how new drugs work in human cells.

“The Connectivity Map works much like a Google search to discover connections among drugs and diseases,” said team member Dr Todd Golub, of Harvard Medical School.

Three new research papers, one in Science and two in Cancer Cell, show the map’s ability to accurately predict the molecular actions of novel therapeutic compounds and to suggest ways that existing drugs can be newly applied to treat diseases such as cancer.

“This is a powerful discovery tool for the scientific community,” said Justin Lamb, the lead author of the Science paper. “By analysing just a small fraction of available drugs, we have already confirmed several biological connections between drugs and human disease, and made entirely new ones, too.”

Already the map has suggested a new way to overcome drug resistance in cancer. The researchers used it to identify the FDA-approved immunosuppressant drug, sirolimus (also known as rapamycin), as a therapeutic candidate for overcoming drug resistance in a form of human leukaemia.

Using the Connectivity Map, the scientists were also able to discover the mechanisms underlying a novel drug candidate for prostate cancer.

The researchers hope that ongoing development of the map will allow researchers to meet one of the key challenges in biomedicine - to connect each human disease with drugs that effectively treat it and to understand the molecular basis for such drugs’ effects.