UW researcher elaborates on drug development findings

Photo by Theresa Shim
Photo by Theresa Shim

Scientists at the University of Waterloo have recently made discoveries regarding a technique used to test and develop drugs. This technique is called differential mobility spectrometry (DMS) and it has been in development for over 15 years; the current instrument used by UW researchers was commercialized in 2012.

The traditional techniques before DMS were based on mobility: how easily an ion can move through a gaseous environment. However, those techniques measured structure as opposed to properties.

Dr. Scott Hopkins, who headed the UW team in collaboration with SCIEX and Pfizer, stated, “We want to try to develop the technology so that we can inform the drug design process, reduce the cost and time it takes to do these [in order to] ultimately […] bring drugs to market quicker, which is a benefit to the health and well-being of Canadians.”

One of the main benefits of this new technique is efficiency, as DMS takes seconds to complete the initial phase of measuring the properties of a given drug molecule, compared to hours, or even days, from current methods. “[It demonstrates] efficiency in terms of shorter time [and] reduced sample, which is good from a financial standpoint and an environmental standpoint,” Hopkins said. “In principle, you can automate the process, so you end up getting high throughput, machine-based testing.”

Hopkins also stated, “In the short term, the things that we are looking at now are interesting at a fundamental standpoint, not just the applied things we are trying to do (drug discovery). We are able to learn things about how molecules interact with the world around them.”

In the long term, Hopkins and his colleagues aim to help the drug design process at a very fundamental level.

When asked about any possible negative implications of DMS, Hopkins pointed to one potential issue: “The technique is not really proven. Current techniques are staple and proven for decades […]. Since this is a new technique, we are not sure if it will apply to all classes of drugs, [and] we are not sure if there is some subtlety that we are missing.”

The solution seems simple: do more work and spend more time with the technique, while making sure that the work done with the Differential Mobility Spectrometer has parallel studies done with the proven techniques, ensuring the results have a correlation. Eventually, once the results are consistently accurate, scientists can disregard the older method and rely on the more efficient method of DMS.

According to Hopkins, implementation of Differential Mobility Spectrometry into the field should be relatively easy for several reasons. Technique is robust, using instruments without moving parts, commercially available from SCIEX, companies can do the measurements based on UW’s reports with excellent reproducibility. Implementation should not take long, it is simply determined by companies’ opinions on whether they believe DMS is a worthwhile upgrade to traditional methods. Hopkins believes so, stating “the capabilities of the instrument are quite powerful.”

It is not guaranteed that DMS is a perfect fit for all drug testing, or if it is perfectly parallel to older methods, however only time will tell. Hopefully, other labs will follow UW’s lead in studying this technique to speed up the process of discovery. There are still questions regarding the future of Differential Mobility Spectrometry; nonetheless, there is tremendous potential, thanks to the teamwork of SCIEX, Pfizer, and the University of Waterloo.