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SLAS2018 Explores the Diversity of Chemical Biology

“Chemical Biology, like good taste, is somewhat hard to pin down, but you know it when you see it,” Elizabeth Ostler, Chem Cent J. 2007; 1:5.

By The Lab Man
(AKA SLAS Director of Education Steve Hamilton)

To chair the new track, SLAS reached out to both experience – Jonathan O’Connell, executive director and head of Early Discovery at FORMA Therapeutics and SLAS2013 conference co-chair – and new insights – Gwenn Hansen, director – Drug Discovery Technologies at Nurix, Inc. O’Connell explains: “Chemical biology is indeed a very broad term. When I think about the term, I think about it as chemicals (or compounds) driving our understanding of biology. This can mean a number of things but from a high level, traditional drug discovery has broadly focused on a biological hypothesis and then looked for compounds that modulate a specific target central to that hypothesis. Turning this around, one can look at a particular phenotype and try to find compounds that modulate it or one can take a very exploratory hypothesis and use tool molecules to validate the biological hypothesis. This is one aspect of chemical biology.

“Another aspect of chemical biology is how we leverage compounds to elucidate biology. So, how do we organize collections, how do tackle diversity to ensure we can tackle various classes of biological molecules, what approaches to compound screening are appropriate for a particular target? What this track does is bring these topics together in a structured way, rather than have them distributed across multiple tracks. This enables anyone interested in the field to be able to focus on diverse talks covering some key aspects of chemical biology. I am particularly excited about a session dedicated to DEL (DNA encoded libraries) since that has not previously happened at SLAS and this is a field that is growing exponentially right now.”

Chemical biology is inherently a very interdisciplinary field, spanning chemistry, biology and physics. It involves the application of chemical techniques, tools and analyses for the study and manipulation of biological systems. Within three sessions planned for SLAS2018 the SLAS organizers have pulled together a broad sampling. 

The first session, Affinity-Based Lead Discovery using DNA Encoded Chemistry, is chaired by Gwen Hansen of Nurix.  As mentioned above, this is a new, hot topic that the program committee felt was important to include in the SLAS program. Joe Franklin from GSK speaks about non-combinatorial synthesis to accelerate hit ID. Niek Dekker (AstraZeneca), Allison Olszewski (X-Chem) and Jeff Messer (GSK) all plan to present information about various aspects of DNA-encoded libraries. 

The second session, chaired by Stephen Johnson (BMS) focuses on the biology and chemistry of small molecule libraries. This topic has floated in and out of the conference program, but never had a regular “home.” The emphasis is on the discovery use of libraries, rather than logistical and process issues. Johnson shares information about compound collection evolution and design informatics. Rajarshi Guha (NIH) enlightens us about his informatics and small molecule exploration of the Dark Genome, and the latest information about profiling in human primary-cell based phenotypic assays is discussed by Ellen Berg (DiscoverX). 

The third and final session is about target selection and validation, chaired by Pete Rahl (Fulcrum Therapeutics). The presentations are about tool molecule strategies, biomarker ID approaches and technologies, activity-based probes and approaches to new target identification. Speakers include Kathryn Chapman (Cambridge University) explaining her work using pluripotent stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes for target ID, Joy Atienza (Takeda) describing her research in designing inhibitors and Bruce Posner (UT Southwestern) presenting his work on biomarkers in lung cancer. 

Finally, The Lab Man asked O’Connell about his long experience with SLAS. He replied “Let’s be honest, there is no escape! Seriously though, for those in the hit identification industry and associated technologies, there is no place like SLAS where it all comes together. There are multiple smaller conferences which cover individual aspects but at SLAS you get it all under the same roof. Additionally, all the industry experts attend so networking and the ability to learn from others is a huge element.” 

Why Attend SLAS2018?

The SLAS2018 scientific program should be an exciting update from past years. In addition to the Chemical Biology Track, the organizers have added a track on High-Definition Biotechnology and another on Biologics Discovery. Details of these and other tracks can be found at the program page of the conference website. Plan to join us in sunny San Diego, February 3-7 at the San Diego Convention Center. Register now

You may not realize it, but SLAS offers focused conferences on topics such as chemical biology, compound management and high-content screening. Check out the Events tab on our website. 

About the Author

The Lab Man is SLAS Education Director Steve Hamilton, Ph.D. He is a creative change maker, delivering the fresh thinking and energy that has helped make SLAS the go-to resource for those in life sciences discovery and technology. After years in the drug discovery world, heading many leading-edge automation projects for companies such as Eli Lilly, Scitec and Amgen, Hamilton joined the SLAS professional team in 2010. He received his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from Purdue University and a B.S. in chemistry from Southeast Missouri State University.

October 9, 2017