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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Clay Lies Still, But Blood's A Rover | Main | Resistance to Resistance »

August 17, 2004

Kinases and Their Komplications

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Posted by Derek

I'm going to take off from another comment, this one from Ron, who asks (in reference to the post two days ago): "would it not be fair to say that cellular biochemistry gets even more complicated the more we learn about it?

It would indeed be fair. I think that as a scientific field matures it goes through several stages. Brute-force collection of facts and observations comes early on, as you'd figure. Then the theorizing starts, with better and better theories being honed by more targeted experiments. This phase can be mighty lengthy, depending on the depth of the field and the number of outstanding problems it contains. A zillion inconsistent semi-trivialities can take a long time to sort out (think of the mathematical proof of the Four-Color Theorem), as can a smaller number of profound headscratchers (like, say, a reconciliation of quantum mechanics with relativity as they deal with gravity.)

If the general principles discovered are powerful enough, things can get simpler to understand. Think of the host of problems that early 20th-century physics had, many of which resolved themselves as applications of quantum mechanics. Earlier, chemistry went through something similar earlier, on a smaller scale, with the adoption of the stereochemical principles of van't Hoff. Suddenly, what seemed to be several separate problems turned out to be facets of one explanation: that atoms had regular three-dimensional patterns of bonding to other atoms. (If that sounds too obvious for such emphasis, keep in mind that this notion was fiercely ridiculed at resisted at the time.)

Cell biology is up to its pith helmet in hypotheses, and is nowhere near out of the swamps of fact collection. As in all molecular biology, the sheer number of different systems is making for a real fiesta. Your average cell is a morass of interlocking positive and negative feedback loops, many of which only show up fleetingly, under certain conditions, and in very defined locations. Some general principles have been established, but the number of things that have to be dealt with is still increasing, and I'm not sure when it's going to level out.

For example, the other day a group at Sugen (now Pfizer) published a paper establishing just how many genes there are in mice that code for protein kinase enzymes. Through adding phosphoryl groups, these enzymes are extremely important actors in the activation, transport, and modulation of the activities of thousands upon thousands of other proteins, and it turns out that there are exactly 540 of them. (Doubtless there are some variations as they get turned into proteins, but that's how many genes there are.) And that's that.

Now, that earlier discovery of protein phosphorylation as a signaling mechanism was a huge advance, and it has been appropriately rewarded. And knowing just how many different kinase enzymes there are is a step forward, too. But figuring out all the proteins they interact with, and when, and where, and what happens when they do - well, that's first cousin to hard work.

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