Changing attitudes and increased support mean chemical biology research has a bright future, says Andy Merritt

In 2009, a review of chemistry in the UK identified chemical biology as one of the developing strengths of UK research. It included a specific recommendation that attention should be given to schemes to further collaboration at the interface between chemistry and biology. For those working in the field of chemical biology, this conclusion was a breath of fresh air.

Historically strongest in the US, chemical biology has become increasingly important worldwide, but for many years researchers at the chemistry–biology interface have struggled to establish their discipline. With research areas falling between the core focus of the individual funding councils, funding for aspects of chemical biology was often difficult to obtain and proposals were often the victim of ‘not our brief’ refusals. The peer review process itself often created issues, with reviewers typically focusing on the content of proposal from their own discipline without realising the value of the combined work. Rejections based on ‘too little chemistry/biology’ were all too common.

But faced with the evidence, none could argue that the knowledge and insights provided by chemical biology are anything but vital to science. Broadly defined as the use of chemical tools to probe biological problems and understand processes within cells and living organisms, chemical biology has a far-reaching significance for areas such as biomedical research, biocatalysis and agrichemicals. Furthermore, it has significant bearing on drug discovery. Indeed, the same review identified the UK’s potential to have a worldwide impact in this area too, and emphasised the need for collaboration across disciplines and between academia and industry for this to be achieved.

Nurturing networks

Recognising the opportunity and the need to drive chemical biology, funding councils in the UK (EPSRC, BBSRC and MRC) united in support of chemical biology. In collaboration with key industrial partners, four broad themes have been defined (small molecule tools; new concepts in target modulation; target deconvolution; the interaction between small and large molecules) and, with support from the research councils and industry, seven collaborative networks have been established. These multidisciplinary networks will support one or more of the themes and will build collaborative research across academia and into the ‘end user’ community, be that academic or industrial. They will also act as a platform for further development of cross network research projects that could be funded through the research councils or other bodies.

Each network spans disciplines and, in many cases, institutions to meet the challenges of chemical biology in their particular area. By its very nature, the chemical biology community has long been accustomed to working in collaboration so it is unsurprising that the chance to drive research further and faster by even greater collaboration has been greeted with enthusiasm. Each network is eager to investigate how it might learn from the activities of the others and how they can work together. As an illustration, one scenario might see one network develop a new set of fragments based on the novel chemistry of another that would be screened in the cell control and prion development networks, leading to new drug candidates.

Clearly collaborative

So what will success look like? One grand challenge set by the networks themselves is to identify tool molecules to explore every biologically relevant process, be that protein–protein or enzyme interactions. Achieving this will only be possible with the involvement of the pharmaceutical industry and the contribution of its expertise to support the academic innovators in the field. This will hopefully lead to more employment opportunities in an area that has seen significant decline over the past few years as pharmaceutical research has been cut. 

Plans are already in early stage development for a major conference that would highlight the field of chemical biology, illustrate the success of the networks and encourage international collaboration. Preliminary discussions have also begun around the need for a ‘home’ for chemical biology in the UK - perhaps we are witnessing the early stages of the creation of a new learned society.

So in just three years since review of UK chemical science in 2009, the research councils have worked together to establish networks, which themselves have banded together to form a larger cohort of chemical biology in the UK. This illustrates not only the quality of chemical biology in this country but also the inherently collaborative nature of its leading participants. The future for chemical biology in the UK is clearly collaborative.

Andy Merritt is associate director, chemistry at the Medical Research Council Technology and writes on behalf of Chemical Biology Networks UK