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Chemical biology: A chemical toolbox as a response to biological questions

In medieval times, alchemy was the forerunner of chemistry, and was known as the ‘handmaid of medicine’. Ironically, now that the boundaries between scientific disciplines are becoming less distinct, this relationship is stronger. This CORDIS Results Pack illustrates how chemical biology provides tools to understand the epidemiology of a variety of diseases, and to design more efficacious drugs.

Fundamental Research

The human body is a sophisticated chemical machine – precise and efficient. Normal function and disease are closely intertwined with the coordination of hundreds of intricate chemical reactions. Interdisciplinary cooperation is essential to obtain clear insight of how the body works and to decipher the chemical links between physiological and pathological conditions. Combining the core tenets of both disciplines, chemical biology reveals important molecular structures, methods and tools to manipulate and study biological processes at the chemical level. Studies often go hand in hand with other crossover fields of chemistry: synthetic chemistry, analytical chemistry and physical chemistry.

The EU’s contribution to health

The European Commission fully supports research and development in health technologies. In its Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), it allocated more than EUR 6 billion for research projects with focus on three key areas: ‘Biotechnology, generic tools and medical technologies for human health’, ‘Translating research into human health’ and ‘Optimising the delivery of healthcare to European citizens’. In total, 552 projects received funding between 2009 and 2013. During the Horizon 2020 programme (2014–2020), the EU invested more than EUR 7 billion in the societal challenge ‘Health, demographic change and wellbeing’ focusing on translational collaborative health research. In total, 562 projects related to chemical biology received funding. From 2009 to 2018, around 7 % of EU projects related to chemical biology and were funded by the European Research Council (ERC).

Highlighting groundbreaking EU projects

This CORDIS Results Pack features eight projects plus a short introduction to an ongoing but very promising initiative in its first research stages. The projects pioneered the design of chemical tools that enable better understanding of a variety of diseases, including cancer, infectious diseases and neurodegenerative disorders. Developments also have far-reaching implications for drug discovery and delivery. All projects are funded by the ERC. The ongoing aLzINK project has identified an important drug target that could prevent the cascade of events that, over time, ends in Alzheimer’s disease. Targeting more effective drug delivery, the BTVI project used ‘prodrugs’ that reveal their therapeutic action once they are converted within the body into a pharmacologically active drug. The project demonstrated synthesis of cancer drugs, vasodilators (drugs used to treat cardiovascular conditions) and antibacterial drugs delivered to the target tissues or organs. With the aid of imaging techniques, in particular fluorescent tracers, AUTO NERVE project’s outcomes help preserve the fine network of nerves surrounding a prostate tumour, making them more visible and, as a consequence, operations less invasive. In INCYPRO, researchers developed a new chemical stabilisation strategy to make enzymes more durable and alter their activity to ultimately produce more efficient drugs. Another project, LEGO, produced synthetic molecular constructs built like Lego bricks that redirect the body’s own immune defence – its antibodies – to go after cancer cells. The MINIRES project created an elastic material that mimics biological tissues for use in facial injection fillers and biomedicine. The design approach involved modification of a natural protein (resilin) with rubber-like properties. Meanwhile, the NICHOID project produced synthetic cell cultures to study what controls the fate of stem cell differentiation. Results can prompt tissue repair and regenerative medicine. In a similar vein, REGENERBONE developed biomimetic films with bone-regenerating properties that cause less adverse effects than grafts taken from the patient’s own body. Finally, the ongoing VERDI project is developing specialised nanoparticles to fight bone diseases like cancer, infections and osteoporosis.