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The application of systems biology to drug discovery Carolyn R Cho 1 , Mark Labow
The application of systems biology to drug discovery Carolyn R Cho 1 , Mark Labow

The application of systems biology to drug discovery

Carolyn R Cho 1 , Mark Labow 2 , Mischa Reinhard t 3 , Jan van Oostrum 4 and Manuel C Peitsch 4

Recent advances in the ‘omics’ technologies, scientific computing and mathematical modeling of biological processes have started to fundamentally impact the way we approach drug discovery. Recent years have witnessed the development of genome-scale functional screens, large collections of reagents, protein microarra ys, databases and algorithms for data and text mining. Taken together, they enable the unprecedented descriptions of complex biological systems, which are testable by mathematical modeling and simulation. While the methods and tools are advancing, it is their iterative and combinatorial application that defines the systems biology approach.


1 Dep artment o f S ys tems B iology, G enome and P roteome Sciences, Novartis Institutes o f B ioMedical R esearch, Cambridge MA 02139, USA

2 Dep artment o f P latform Chemistry and Biology, G enome and P roteome Sciences, Novartis Institutes o f B io Medical Re search, Cambridge MA 02139, USA

3 Dep artment o f S cientific Com puting and Statistics, Genome and Proteome Sciences, Novartis Institutes o f B ioMedical R e search, Novartis AG, CH-40 02 Basel, Switzerland

4 Dep artment o f S ys tems B iology, G enome and P roteome Sciences, Novartis Institutes o f B ioMedical R esearch, Novartis AG, CH-4002 Basel, Switze rland

Correspon ding author: Peitsch, Manuel C (ma nuel.peitsch@novart

Current Opinion in Chemi cal Biology 2006, 10 :294–302

This review come s from a themed issue on Next-generation t herapeutics Edited by Clifton E Barry III and A lex Matter

Available o nline 5 th July 2006

1367-5931/$ – see front matter # 2006 Elsevier L td. A ll rights reserved.


Drug discovery is a complex unde rtaking facing many challenge s [1 ], not the least of which is a high attrition rate as many prom ising candi dates prove inef fective or toxic in the clinic owing to a poor unde rstanding of the diseases, an d thus the biol ogical systems , they targe t. There fore, it is broadl y agreed that to increase the pro- ductiv ity of drug discovery one needs a far dee per under- standin g of the molecular mecha nisms o f diseases, taking into account the full biolog ical contex t o f the drug target and movi ng beyond individua l gen es an d proteins [ 2–5 ]. System s biol ogy, and especi ally the elucidation and

dynamic anal ysis of cellular signa ling pathw ays, provi des a new gram mar [ 2 ], o r framewor k, for drug discovery .

Systems biology is the ‘systemat ic’ interrogati on of the biological processes within the compl ex, physiologi cal milieu in which they function. Insi ght into the combi ned behavior of these many, diver se, inte racting compo nents is achi eved throug h the integrat ion of exp eriment al, mathema tical and comput ational sci ences in an iterative approach ( Figure 1 ). Thr ough this contex tual unde rstand- ing of the molecul ar mecha nisms of disea se, a systems approach has the potent ial to furth er facilit ate the iden- tification and valid ation of the thera peutic modulatio n o f regulato ry and metabol ic networks and hence help iden- tify tar gets and biom arkers, as well as ‘of f-target’ and side effects of drug candi dates [ 3–5 ].

Here, we focus on selected recent advance s i n the dis- ciplines of syste ms biology (Box 1 ) that are relevant to drug disc overy.

Experimental methods

Experimen tal ap proaches in systems biology are gen er- ally aimed at ident ifying the compo nen ts of a system and their inte ractions, and monitoring the effe ct of perturba- tions on these compo nents. Recent ad vances in proteo- mics, genomics and metabo lomics [ 6,7 ] and their integratio n [8 ] are radi cally tran sforming the drug dis- covery proces s. For inst ance, the ident ification of protein network compo nents and the characte rization of their post-transl ational modi fications has recently reach ed new level s o f scale and compl exity as exempl ified by the analysi s of the insulin recept or substrat e 1 serine/ threonine pho sphorylat ion sites [ 9 ] and the interac tome analysis of the human TNF a /NF k B network members [10 ], and the Erb B/EGF receptors [ 11,12 ]. This has been enabled not on ly by the rapid ly matu ring MS-ba sed proteomics methods [9–11 ] but also by prote in arrays [12 ], whi ch have much progr essed over the past few years [13,14,15 ,16 ]. Althoug h protein forwar d arrays have been successfull y applied in a numb er of settings [ 12–14,15 ], including to the profil ing recept or tyro sine kinas e activa- tion [ 14 ], reverse prote in arrays are argua bly the most broadly app licable technol ogy. They are based on the principle that compl ex protein mixtur es (such as a cell lysates) are spott ed in an array format and probed with selected antibodie s i n a mul tiplexed manner . Reverse arrays have bee n used to anal yze cell lines for potent ial biomarke rs [ 17 ], profile molecul ar pathways in cells excised from cancer tissue by laser capture mi cro-dis sec- tion [15 ,18 ,19 ], and detect auto- antibod ies in serum

Figure 1

The application of systems biology to drug discovery Cho et al. 295

of systems biology to drug discovery Cho et al. 295 Process d iagram of systems b

Process d iagram of systems b iology.

[ 16,20 ], whi ch opens new opportu nities for their applica- tion to screening in a clinical sett ing [ 20 ]. Further more , reverse arrays are part icularly well suited to moni tor dynami c network respons es ( Figure 2 ) t o compo und- induced pe rturbations. Thi s compo und-base d syst ems respons e profiling [5 ], or stru cture pathway activity rela- tionsh ip ( Figure 3 ) has the po tential to provi de early indicat ions about possi ble off-ta rget and toxic effects of drug candi dates. The availabilit y o f highly speci fic anti- bodies is, ho wever, a prere quisite for rever se arr ays. Where as a reasonabl e fraction of commer cially availa ble antibo dies ap pears to be suitabl e fol lowing validation, the genera lization of reverse arrays will de pend on the gen- eration of broad collect ions of high- quality anti bodies [ 15 ]. For instan ce, the Hum an Prote in Atlas Initiative ( http:// www.prot einatla ), part of the Hum an Anti- body Initia tive of the Human Prote ome Organ ization (HUPO ), has started a syst ematic app roach to the

generati on and validat ion of anti bodies [ 21,22 ]. It is, however, notewort hy that molecular recognit ion is not limited to immunogl obulin domain s, and prote omics may soon benefi t from newly enginee red prote in-bindi ng domains such as desig ned ankyrin -repeat prote ins (DAR- Pins) [ 23 ]. While prote in arrays provide data for the average content of a sample (e.g., cell lysa tes), recent develop ments in flow cytomet ry-ba sed single- cell proteo- mics can further complem ent these technolog ies in that a limited number of signa ling events and surf ace markers can be meas ured simultan eously in the same cell and hence en able discri mination betwee n variou s cell popu- lations in rare samp les and biopsi es [ 24 ].

Beyond monitor ing the effe ct of perturbat ions on pre- defined network compo ne nts, systems biology relies on the systema tic analysi s of gen e function in signalin g pathways and cellular proces ses. This has recent ly been

296 Next-generation therapeutics

Box 1 Systems b iolo gy is interdisciplin ary.

E xperimental sciences: Direct systemic interrogation. Large scale genom ics, proteomics and metabolite measurements are used to mon itor g ene transl ation, p rotein expression, signaling events and me tabolite fluxes induced by the syst ematic perturbation o f a biolo g ical system by biological , genetic or chemical factors. Furthermo re, large-scale experimenta l m ethods are used to identify th e nodes o f signaling n etworks, through t he comprehen sive identif ication o f interaction p artne rs and p rotein modific ations (e.g., phospho rylations). The comparison o f s amples from a disease state with those o f m atched normal donor s a nd the creation o f a nima l mode ls of disease (through the knock -out of selected g enes and/o r th e introduction o f s pecific mutations) represents a w ell establ ished app roach t o study a system through t he analysis of naturally occur ring p erturbations. Data analysis and pathway i nformatics: Analy sis and under- standing of data in t h e context o f larger systems. Statistical and comp utational methods are used to analyze and i nterpret large experimenta l data sets w ith the aim t o identify molecular s pecies sign ificantly affected by the experimenta l c onditions ( perturbatio ns). Dat abases and software t ools a re used to store , manage and visua lize expression data i n the cont e xt of cellular network a nd pathw ay informatio n. This i nformation i s a ssemble d from literature by han d or using m ini ng techniques. Litera ture min ing: Discovery, extraction and synthesis of current kno w ledge. Entity recognition (identifying s ubstances), informat ion extrac tion (identify ing relationships between biological entities) and natural language processing (combination o f syntax and semantics analysi s t o e xtrac t relationships from complex sentences) are used to extract known facts such as protein–protein i nteracti ons, protein phospho rylation, regula tory relationships between mol ecular entities and genotype–ph enotype relation s hips from the scientific literature. Text mining enables the inferenc e of relationships b etween e xtracted entities a nd facts that a re not f orma lly enunci ated in a sentence. M a thematical modeling: Extrapo lation a nd prediction to test unders tanding. Mathematica l modeling a nd simulation is used to identif y a ssu mptions (iterating with literature mini ng) and gaps in unders t anding (iterating w ith additional analysis or data), and to gener ate new and experimentally verifiable hypotheses, thereb y closing t he iteration loop.

made possible by the dev elopment of cell-ba sed genome - scale ap proaches, where ov er 20 000 individua l genes can be inte rrogated in highly multi plexed experime nt. These technol ogies aim to quanti fy the effects of either the overex press ion of individua l prote ins using full length cDNA s [25 ,26 ] (Figure 4 ), or the inhi bition of gene expres sion by RNA i mol ecules [ 27–29 ] ( Figure 4 ). They are enable d b y the crea tion of genome -scale collect ions of reage nts [25,30,31 ] and their optimi zation throug h com- putat ional app roaches [32 ]. Thes e genome -scale screen s produce systems -level activi ty data for each gene, provi d- ing rich databa ses that can be mined to predi ct the physio logical and bioche mical fun ction of indi vidual pro- teins as well as the regul atory netw orks and pathw ays unde rpinning distinc t phenotypes . I n o n e early set of experi ments perform ed in mam malian cells, data from sever al cDN A overex press ion screen s were used to pre- dict the bioche mical activi ty of a gene of previ ously unkno wn function [ 25 ]. In a later exam ple, this approach was applied to ident ify g enes and pa thways capable of induci ng nuc lear TORC accumula tion [ 26 ]. The gen- ome-sca le RNAi-b ased screen was de velope d in

Drosophi la melanoga ster cell cultu res and used to exam- ine the role of 21 000 genes in cell growth [ 33 ]. This approach has sinc e been appli ed to a numb er of signal transduct ion and cell-ba sed processes in D. melanogas ter and mamma lian cell systems [ 34–36 ] as wel l as in vivo using the ne matode Caenor habditis elegans [ 34,37 ]. Furthermor e, similar ap proaches have recent ly been used to globa lly asses s the role of non -coding RN As on path- way function in mamma lian cells [ 38 ]. Althoug h high- through put functiona l syst ems level analysis provi des quantitativ e data abou t g ene activi ty and funct ional inte r- actions, it expect ed that new technol ogies and areas of investigatio n, such as microRN A biology [ 39,40 ], will emerge and further complem ent our unde rstanding of biological syst ems.

Data mining and pathway informatics

The evolut ion o f these genomic and proteomic met hods has necessit ated the develop ment of new algori thms to analyze the resulti ng data in the contex t o f dru g discovery [41 ]. In pa rticular, integrat ing data from differe nt experi- ments is a chal lenge that is being succes sfully addres sed. For e xample, a Bayesian infe rence of sub-net works from a set of 300 microa rray experime nts has be en used to uncover a numbe r o f pathways [ 42 ], and method s have been develo ped to overlay gen e expres sion data with genome -wide tra nscription factor location data obtai ned by ChIP-on-C hip exp eriment s [ 43 ], leading to the iden- tification of previou sly unkno wn regulato ry ne tworks using data obtained from rapamyci n treated S. cerevisiae [43 ]. Besides method s that infer pathways and regul atory networks , there is a growing num ber ( > 150) of databases [3 ] — of which KEG G [ 44 ] (http:/ /www.geno me.j p/keg/ kegg2.html ) i s probably the best known — that collect such info rmation from scienti fic publi cations using litera- ture mi ning and manua l curatio n. Suc h databa ses can be used to overl ay funct ional and pathway info rmation onto rank-order ed gene lists derived from differe ntial ex pres- sion experime nts [ 45 ]. This approa ch — called gene set enrichme nt anal ysis (GS EA) — rem oves the undue bias of selecting individual up-regulated genes by focusing on entire sets of genes [45 ]. GSEA led to the discovery o f several other disease-relevant pathways including in can- cer [46], Huntington’s disease [47] and myoblast differ- entiation [48], with potential implication for drug and biomarker discovery. By further combining signature- based predictions across s everal pathways, one can identify coordinated patterns of pathway deregulations. Suc h pat- terns were shown to distinguish specific cancers and tumor subtypes [49 ] and to reflect the biology and outcome of specific cancers. Furthermore, i n cell lines, these patterns pre dict their sensitivity to therape utic age nts [49 ] and may help repo sition or extend the applic ation o f ex isting drugs.

Literature mining

The scientifi c literatur e (w hich includ es patent s) is where the key knowle dge and facts relevant to systems biology

Figure 2

The application of systems biology to drug discovery Cho et al. 297

of systems biology to drug discovery Cho et al. 297 Sample applications of reverse protein arrays.

Sample applications of reverse protein arrays. (a) Monitoring phosphorylation e vents: Jurkat cells were treated with OKT3 and a -CD28 antibodies for t he indicated p eriod (x-axis), lysed and analyzed on reverse protein arrays using a n a -ERK (blue circle s) and a n a -phospho-ERK antibody (red bars). This demonstrates t hat transient a nd rapid phosphoryla tion e vents can b e m easur ed using reverse protein arrays. (b) Monitoring o ther signaling e vents: untreate d a nd LiCl-treated Jurkat cells were incubated for 1 6 h with the indicated c oncentrat ions of LiCl, which mimics Wnt p athway/ b -catenin signaling by inhibiting GSK3 b . Following lysis of the cells, the b -catenin levels were assessed using a specific antibody. T he inhibitio n o f GSK3 b -mediated phospho rylation o f b -caten in bloc ks its degradatio n, lead ing t o th e observed a ccumulation of b -catenin. (c,d) Monitoring th e downstream effect of cell signaling inhibitors. Starved A431 cells were stimulated with insulin and co-treat ed with increasing concentra tions of an inhibito r o f t he IGF1- receptor tyrosine kinase. After 30 min o f treatment, the c ells were lysed and the phosphoryla tion levels o f A kt and GSK3 b were monitored w ith antibo d ies specific for (c) Ser473-Pho spho-Akt and (d) S er9-phospho - GSK3 b . By plotting the perc ent inhibition versus inhibito r c oncentration, one can derive IC 50 -like data from such experiments. RFI is the r elative fluorescence intensity.

are stored and reported [ 50 ]. This resource is, howev er, growing an d diver sifying at a stag gering pace. As a con- sequen ce, comput ational tools design ed to efficiently extract entities and thei r relatio nships (bio logical facts) will play a pivot al rol e i n syst ems biology [ 51,52 ]. Indeed, model building starts with the identifica tion of the com- ponen ts of a system an d how they interact (Figure 1 ), facts that are then formal ized in a diagram from whi ch a mathe matical model will be derived [53 ]. The best approa ch to ident ify prote in and gen e entities in text is to use a careful ly cu rated list of synonym s [54 ] and recent ly de velope d met hods for synon ym extract ion [ 55 ] and termi nology disambig uation [ 56–58 ]. The con- secut ive ex traction of the inte raction s between these

entities relies on entity co-occurr ence analysi s [ 59–61 ] and na tural langua ge processi ng [62–67 ]. Thes e met hods have been succes sfully applied to the recons tructi on of networks [ 67,68 ] rel evant to drug discovery and to the analysis of biol ogical data [ 68 ,69 ] and bioinforma tics databases [70,71 ] in the contex t of literature -derived information and networks . Further more, combi ning text mining and statis tical app roaches enable s scienti sts to extract signi ficant informatio n about research trends , emerging fields from patent s [72 ], and infer (pote ntial) new pathw ay/target- disease relation ships from the scien- tific liter ature [ 67,73 ]. Rec ent advance s i n high- perfo r- mance GRID -base d text mining [ 74 ] o f full text scie ntific articles [75 ] open s new doors for the disco very of scie ntific


Next-generation therapeutics

Figure 3

298 Next-generation therapeutics Figure 3 Possible applicatio n o f reverse protein a rrays in systems

Possible applicatio n o f reverse protein a rrays in systems b iology: structure pathway act ivity relation ship (SPAR). (a) Selected cell lines are treated with appropriat e combinat ions of activating stimuli and treated with either (b) si/shR N A (c) or test compou nds. T reated cells are sampled in a time-depen dent manne r and lysed before being spotted on reverse protein arrays. The arrays are (d) incubated with pre-defined antibodies and (e) me asurements are taken. The systems response p rofi les (SRPs) are ded u ced from (f) the fluorescence inten sities and (g) store d in a database along with pathw ay informatio n. The treatmen t w ith siRNAs allows identific ation o f SRPs caused by well-targeted networ k p erturbatio ns, w h i ch can s erve as the reference set again st which SRPs caused by drug candidate s can be compared. (h) There by off-target effects c an be deduced.

facts and interpre tations so fundam ental to systems biol- ogy. Finally, inte grating text with biol ogical, chemica l and clinical da ta throug h text mining and en tity-asso- ciated rule s will en able syste ms biologi sts to quickly navig ate between scienti fic data domai ns that are cur- rently kept in disconn ected databa ses [ 76 ].

Mathematical modeling

The advances in experimental approaches and in data and literature mining have also accelerated progress in the development and application of modeling approaches [53,77]. The most widely applied modeling method is the deterministic biochemical reaction description. The formalism, analysis and application that has been reviewed extensively [78 –80 ] has matured t o the extent that an

annotation standard has begun to emerge [50 ,81]. Emer- ging graphical ontology standards [82,83] will greatly aid in harmonizing the academic and commercial software tools that are available. In drug discovery, this modeling method has been successfully applied in pharmacokinetics/phar- macodynamics and dose-response modeling [84,85], and wider application is anticipated ( initiatives/criticalpath/stanski/stanski.html).

One drawback of the deter ministic reac tion approa ch is its lack of scalabi lity. Genomi c and prote omic approa ches are aimed at identif ying signa ling networks of tens or more of molecules. The size, range of reac tion param eters over many orders of magni tude, and extent of unknowns make these models intract able to computat ional met hods.

Figure 4

The application of systems biology to drug discovery Cho et al. 299

of systems biology to drug discovery Cho et al. 299 Large-scale genetic screens. L arge curated

Large-scale genetic screens. L arge curated collectio ns of gene-sp ecific cDNAs and RNAi enable high ly m ultiplexe d and syst ematic gain a nd loss of functio n s cree ns. The diag ram outlines a hypothetical signal transduction p athway, initiated by a ligand-dependen t membrane b ound receptor, w hich a fter activation by a ligand leads to the activation o f a specific signal transduct ion pathway. T his pathway culminates in a downstream event s uch as transcription a l i nduction, which can be monit ored directly or, a s m ost o ften used in high-throughout genetic screens, via an enzym atic or fluorescent reporter gene. (a) Gain of functio n s cree ns are p erformed by selectively over-express ing a critica l pathw ay component (grey circles) and are expected to drive the e quilibrium of a p athway forward, thus activating the reporter. Conversely, (b) loss of function screens are based on the elimination o f a critical compon ent (X ) w ith an RNAi reagent th at will prevent the a ctivation of th e p athway by a stimulus a nd thus the reporter ge ne. T he phenotypic respo n se, such a s th e nuclear transport o f regulat ory m olecules, can b e q uantified using (c) a m icroscopy- based method. In this experiment, the effects of over 7000 individua l genes on the n uc lear import o f the TORC1 CREB co-activa tor w ere quantifie d. This allowed the identification o f a variety of genes and pathways capable o f inducing TORC1 transl ocation and CREB activation [21 ].

New met hods such as combin atorial reaction gene ration [ 86 ], and linear progr amming [8 7,88 ] addres s this need by provid ing automat ed meth ods for ha ndling the compl ex- ity of large chemica l reacti on ne tworks.

Other met hods are add ressing the more fund amental issue of the limi tation of the determin istic approxim ation, itself. Stocha stic repre sentati ons account for the effects of small pop ulations [ 89 ]. Rule-ba sed comput ational approa ches move compl etely away from a deter ministic descr iption [90–92 ]. Thes e met hods provid e a molecul e- centric descript ion and can there fore be a natur al bridge betwe en data-driven infe rence and pred ictive model s [ 93 ], as are funct ional inference met hods [ 94 ]. These meth ods are highly scalabl e and easy to simula te; howev er, it is an open que stion as to how well they wi ll be able to addres s questions invol ving complex non - linear dy namics.

Finally, there are many syst ems biology model s that do not resem ble reaction networks (for a range of examp les visit http:/ /www.c ellml.or g ). In drug develo pment , the most succes sful of these model s are cardiac electro phy- siology (EP ) models that have be en ap plied to safety assessm ent [ 95 ] and, most recent ly, to provide mecha n- istic rationa le sup porting the Januar y 2006 US FDA approval of ranol azine for chroni c angina [96 ] ( http:// www.fda.g ov/bbs /topics /news/2006/ NEW013 06.htm l).


Althoug h the met hods and tools are advancing withi n each disc ipline, it is thei r iterat ive, combinat orial app lica- tion that defines the syst ems biol ogy approa ch. We believe that the discovery and unde rstanding of complex disease mecha nisms and therapeu tic modal ities will increasingl y require this app roach. Thi s will ha ve a pro- found im pact on the systema tic crea tion of large

300 Next-generation therapeutics

collect ions of reage nts (such as antibod ies, RNA i and cDNA ), detect ion met hods and labor atory technology, comput er scien ce and organi zational design . Ind eed, a more widespr ead collabor ation between mathema tician s, comput er scienti sts, phy sicians and exp eriment al sci en- tists will probabl y i m prove drug discovery in the next decade. This will certai nly impact resea rch organiza tion s and the skills needed in resea rch teams, and as a con- sequen ce cal ls for a broader scien tific educat ion of drug discov ery sci entists , bridging the cla ssical disc iplines of biology, mathema tics, chemi stry and medici ne in an unprecede nted manner . I n these way s, systems biology prom ises to imp act drug discovery signi ficantly and improve the success rate of disc overing crucial medicin es.


We thank M ark S B ogusk i and Alan Buckler for their input and support during t he writing of t his review.

References and recommended reading

Papers o f partic ular interest, published w ith in the a nnual period o f review, have been h ighlighted as:

of outstanding interest

of special interest


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