The Meat Grinder Of Drug Discovery: A Photo Tour of NCI’s Natural Products Repository

Rare is the chemist whose tools of the trade include a meat grinder and a band saw. But then, the Developmental Therapeutics Program's Natural Products Repository and Support Group at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Maryland is no ordinary operation. Researchers at NCI are combing nature for potential anticancer compounds. Over 75,000 specimens, a mix of dried plants and frozen marine organisms, have made their way to Frederick from Vietnam, Palau, and other far-flung locales to be tested for biological activity. Kirk Gustafson, head of the natural products chemistry group at NCI's Molecular Targets Laboratory, was kind enough to show me around. After learning about how natural products were collected in times past for my story this week on a new biodiversity treaty, I wanted to visit NCI's repository. My conversations at Frederick often turned to drug discovery. It's clearly a rough time for the industry, and natural products researchers will emphasize how important molecules from nature have been in the drug discovery pipelines of decades past. Derek Lowe, David Kroll and many other more knowledgeable bloggers than I have talked about drugs that are inspired by (or come directly from) nature, and the shuttering of natural products research facilities in some large pharmaceutical companies. But the rotovaps still hum in Frederick. Their search for potential new drugs from nature is still on. More reading: The US National Cancer Institute’s natural products repository; origins and utility, J. Environ. Monit., 2006, 8, 800 UPDATED March 1: added reference to Developmental Therapeutics Program UPDATED March 1: updated link to biodiversity treaty story

Author: Carmen Drahl

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  1. Was gonna say, that headline could mean a lot of things…

  2. Indeed. Thought that headline’d resonate these days. Though I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m making light of a crappy situation.

  3. Thanks for sharing these images. They are doing a terrific job at NCI making these compounds available free of charge to researchers. I’m looking forward to hearing success stories about usage of these compounds against cancer or other diseases.

    Thank you very much!

  4. Carmen, I am so envious! Even after all of my work in the natural products field, I still have yet to visit the DTP Natural Products Branch at Frederick. I’ve not yet met Kirk but I can say that my other colleagues there are phenomenally helpful when it comes to any aspect of natural product research. This branch of NCI is truly a national treasure. Thank you for bringing their work to the attention of your readers!

  5. David, to be honest with you, I was afraid my pictures wouldn’t do it justice. It’s amazing to walk in there- from outside the building looks like many of the other buildings on the site. But once you step inside the sheer size of the place, and the bags upon bags of plant and marine samples in the freezers, is pretty awesome.

    I should add that I’ve had many fantastic interactions with NCI and Frederick natural products folks beyond Kirk. Gordon Cragg, David Newman, and John Beutler, to name a few.

    And @sargis, thanks for your comment. I don’t believe I’ve seen you comment around these parts. There was a sign-up sheet at the entrance to the center where many outside researchers had written down their names during visits.

    I also hope some of the molecules in Frederick survive the gauntlet of drug discovery. But sometimes it’s hard to be optimistic these days…