The Role of NMR in Drug Discovery and Development


There are three routes to drug discovery featuring similar subsequent stages of drug development. The first route is essentially a reverse process whereby chemists start from scratch in the synthesis of a custom drug. The route starts with the discovery of a biochemical mechanism linked to a known disease or condition. The mechanism will typically rely on a specific enzyme, a receptor, a gene or protein. Chemists then embark on creating a bio-chemical entity that suitably interacts with the target gene, receptor, protein or enzyme.

In this manner, chemists are able to come up with compounds that are very specific in their drug activity. However, only mega pharmaceutical companies possess the resources to use this drug discovery approach. The reason is that the creation of previously non-existent chemical molecules with custom biochemical properties is a very expensive endeavor. In addition to the use of very advanced spectrometers for chemical analysis, this approach is also labor and time-intensive. You would need to be a multi-billionaire to even contemplate creating a designer drug.

The second route, despite involving a notable degree of luck, is the path by which several crucial medical discoveries came into being. It is common knowledge several major drug discoveries occurred while scientists actively engaged in more humble pursuits. An excellent example is the accidental discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1938. The story goes that Fleming had forgotten to seal a petri dish containing staphylococci bacteria, which ended up with mold.

By some unknown twist of fate, Fleming didn’t dispose of the contaminated sample. Instead, the researcher became curious about the possible effects that the mold would have on the bacterial colony. As they say, the rest is history. Whether as a result of simple curiosity or outrageous luck, Fleming’s discovery ended up saving millions of lives in world war two. Fortunately, the advent of the benchtop NMR spectrometer means that luck and guess-work a no longer central hallmarks of drug discovery. Low field NMR spectrometers play a significant role in modern-day drug discovery. The next looks at the third route of drug discovery and the increasing role NMR spectrometer applications.

NMR and the Early Stages of Drug Discovery

The third route of drug discovery is responsible for the creation of a significant portion of present-day pharmaceutical products. This third route has also made notable contributions to the cosmetic and weight-loss markets. Modern-day drug discovery and development begins with existing, often grassroots, knowledge of unique medicinal benefits availed by certain plant species exhibit. Common herbs and spices such as garlic, chamomile, catnip and basil are good examples. Cannabis is yet another plant with a wide range of possible health benefits.

Once pharmaceutical companies note that a plant extract has significant commercial value, researchers are tasked with identifying the active component in the extract. An elaborate process of identifying constituent chemical components follows and concludes once the active compound is known. This is where spectrometers come into play.

Ultimately, the final pharmaceutical product usually contains a chemically altered version of the original compound. Modification allows for enhanced drug action and the elimination of undesirable side effects. This final and third drug discovery route not only requires the use of highly sensitive spectrometers, but it also utilizes advanced molecular chemistry.

How NMR aid the Identification of Chemical Molecules

The strong magnetic fields produced within Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectrometers cause the individual atoms within molecules to vibrate at certain frequencies. This vibration is commonly known as resonance. How an atom resonates is determined by how it is bonded to nearby atoms and also by unbounded atoms near it. A 60 Mhz benchtop NMR spectrometer can this resonance and generate a detailed spectral image.

The molecular structure of a pure soluble sample is obtained by identifying the peaks relating to different atoms. The distances between peaks also influences other aspects of the molecule, such as molecular length and bond orientation. Fortunately, doing so is quite easy because organic molecules are mainly made of carbon and hydrogen. Students can use a desktop NMR to carry out basic analysis of a wide range of chemical compounds.

There are several benefits that low field NMR spectrometers offer to users. They include shorter setup time, easy-to-use functions, lower power requirements, and lower levels of harmful electromagnetic radiation.