A toaster-sized lump of clear plastic sits in Dr. Larry Hendry's downtown office. The glasslike object appears to be a work of modern art, perhaps an oversize paperweight.
But it's really a large-scale representation of one of the many spaces found inside the molecular strands of human DNA, the same miniscule spaces where Dr. Hendry's biotechnology start-up hopes to discover the next class of gene-based drugs.
The plastic model, which was cast more than 20 years ago, is now only a conversation piece. Dr. Hendry's Accelerated Pharmaceuticals Inc. relies instead on computerized maps of human genes and the company's patented molecular blueprints, called pharmacophores, to predict a compound's chemical activity based on how it "fits" into its DNA compartment.
Since the company's founding more than three years ago, the process had been done on computers by technicians who would dock three-dimensional models of compounds into the DNA blueprints. Earlier this year, however, the company automated the process with search engine software that rapidly screens large volumes of compounds pulled from databases maintained by the National Institutes of Health.
"What would take me six months can now be done in seconds," Dr. Hendry said.
To validate the technology, Accelerated Pharmaceuticals ran the institutes' database of 1,470 estrogenic compounds - created in 1968 - through the search engine. Within weeks the company had eliminated 1,100 as candidates for estrogen-based drugs. It took countless research teams more than a decade to do the same using animal tests.
"We're not saying we have the holy grail," Dr. Hendry said, "but we can narrow down the leads."
In the pharmaceutical industry, where only one out of 5,000 drug compounds ever reaches the first stage of human testing, the technology would allow companies to screen drugs before moving forward with lengthy and expensive clinical trials.
Accelerated pharmaceuticals hopes to sell or license the molecular blueprints to a major drug company. Or it would like to form a partnership similar to the one it has with Maryland drug designer EntreMed Inc., creator of anti-cancer drug candidates Angiostatin and Endostatin.
Dr. Hendry said there is some preliminary interest in the technology. Two weeks ago, the company gave a presentation to a group of pharmaceutical company executives in Boston.
"It was late in the day on Friday, and everybody needed to catch a plane," Dr. Hendry said. "But they all stuck around, so that was a good sign."
Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.