FDA-approved Drug Database Created by UA Professor Being Used Globally

Jón T. Njardarson, an associate professor in the UA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, has created a visual database of all FDA-approved drugs – the first of its kind. The website has received hundreds of thousands of downloads across the world.
April 10, 2014
An example of Associate Chemistry Professor Jón T. Njardarson's drug posters.
An example of Associate Chemistry Professor Jón T. Njardarson's drug posters.

With thousands of pharmaceutical drugs on the U.S. market, keeping track of what each one does, its chemical makeup and manufacturer is a monumental task. A centralized informational hub that contains all that data in one place would be in demand around the world.

It would seem a database like that should exist, but until recently, it didn’t – not until Jón T. Njardarson, an associate professor in the University of Arizona Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, created it.

Njardason took on the job of building the database and put it in a user-friendly website. The data is heavy with visuals and includes a poster for each drug. It can be found online here.

His novel way of charting medicinal history has generated worldwide interest from scientists and pharmaceutical companies, and they have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times.

The project had humble beginnings, with Njardarson, a synthetic chemist, or a “molecular architect” as he calls it, interested in how to learn about pharmaceutical structures quickly and efficiently.

“I wanted to start thinking about pharmaceuticals, where the fruits of synthetic chemistry play a big role in society,” said Njardarson, who was recruited to the University of Arizona from Cornell University in 2010. “Reading a book is too slow and your brain can’t juggle all the information.”

Njardarson said he called on his interest in design and architecture to devise a simple image-based approach to lay out pharmaceuticals, first according to the top sellers. The result looks almost like a periodic table of medicines, with a classic design and intuitive arrangement.

The project presents information about a drug’s molecular architecture or medicinal use, easily understandable without a textbook or any formal chemistry training or instruction. Each drug is described by its structural image, FDA approval date, international nonproprietary name (INN), initial market name and a color-coded subclass of drug function.

“We were at this juncture where our research was going great, but we wanted to take it to the next level and give people more information. So, we decided to include every structure that has been approved by the FDA,” he said.

Njardarson branched out to include all of the roughly 2,000 FDA-approved drugs, grouping the structures onto posters into 12 disease categories, arranged chronologically.

“The cool thing about doing this kind of project is we can take on many more undergraduate students for training. We can do science without having to have everybody mentored in the lab,” he said.

The first posters of their kind, Njardarson offers his team’s work freely online. The top 200 selling drugs have been downloaded more than 200,000 times.

Each poster celebrates the unique structural imageries of molecular compounds via colorful displays of the pharmaceutical drugs approved by the FDA since its formal establishment in 1906. Njardarson’s team has included UA undergraduates Monica Fallon, Eric Gerlach, Angela N. Yazzie, Miaynt’e Y. Newton and Jack Madiehl Suaz, under the direction of post-doctoral researcher Elizabeth Ilardi and graduate student Edon Vitaku.

“Because of this graphical format we’ve created and the empowering way we can communicate with images, we can have a layman look at these structures and start looking for patterns,” he said. “My philosophy on outreach is basically asking ‘Why should I just bring people through the lab? Why not impact millions?’ I don’t think the layman will be intimidated by this. We need more effort by scientists to change the language.”

Recently, the group released two additional structurally themed custom posters “Fluorinated Pharmaceuticals” and “Sulfur-Containing Pharmaceuticals,” which Njardarson describes as excellent platforms for first-of-its-kind statistical analyses and data mining. The posters highlight two of the more common elements – along with carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen – that make up the chemical structures of drugs in the United States.

One challenge Njardarson faced – a major issue in cancer drugs – is how to organize and classify pharmaceuticals that were developed with one purpose in mind but found other uses. The chart handles those drugs approved for multiple uses with a color-coded legend appended to the bottom row.

Njardarson’s posters open the project up to all kinds of analysis, with ease of organizing and regrouping the underlying information in different ways.

But the FDA is not the only body governing medicines. For a world list, Njardarson would like to get data from Europe and Japan. And another possible phase is to incorporate the drugs rejected by the FDA.

The success of Njardarson’s approach – and the feedback from scientists and drug companies – proves that new ways of organizing and disseminating information can be revolutionary.

“I’m still amazed pharmaceutical people haven’t done something like this before,” he said.

Eric Swedlund is a UANews contributing writer.