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The Making of Medicine

Making Medicines Without Side Effects

Our J. Julius Zhu, PhD, and his colleagues have found a way to create drugs without side effects. Basically, they’ve developed a lab technique that will add a whole new layer of precision to the concept of “precision medicine.”

The technique is built on their discovery that the same molecule does different things depending on where it is inside a cell. That’s why drugs can have unintended side effects: Blocking a troublesome molecule entirely might have a beneficial effect, but you’re also stopping its other roles inside the cells. Some of those roles might be quite important.

“The problem with side effects is caused because you just could not distinguish the molecules doing different things in the same cell,” Dr. Zhu explained. “If you blocked a molecule, you blocked it regardless of what it was doing. And that usually has unwanted side effects. Almost every drug that can treat disease has side effects, either major or minor, but usually they always have something.”

With Dr. Zhu’s new technique, scientists can determine exactly what the molecule is doing in a specific area of the cell. They can develop drugs to target it where it’s causing problems but not where it isn’t.

Dr. Zhu says the technique will be useful for diseases across the board, but especially for cancers and neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and autism.

“The idea [behind the technique] is actually very simple,” said Dr. Zhu, of our Department of Pharmacology. “But it took us a lot of years to make this thing work.”

Research associates Yajun Zhang, PhD (left), and Peng Zhang, PhD, were instrumental in the project.
Research associates Yajun Zhang, PhD (left), and Peng Zhang, PhD, were instrumental in the project. Photos by Dan Addison.


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