UK builds World’s first fully-automated drug discovery facility

A unique project to develop technology to drive fast and effective drug discovery was announced today by Business Secretary Greg Clark. Based at the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Harwell, Oxfordshire, this new project will pioneer fully-automated hands-free molecular discovery to produce new drugs up to ten times faster and transform the UK’s pharmaceutical industry.

New drugs are discovered through a slow and painstaking process that often takes over ten years and is extremely expensive. It relies on optimising candidate molecules to allow the  discovery of a drug that can treat an underlying disease such as cancer or Alzheimer’s disease

Business Secretary Greg Clark today launched the new Rosalind Franklin Institute (RFI) at the Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire and announced its first wave of major projects. “Closing the Loop on Drug Discovery” will develop an integrated suite of new technologies that will accelerate the discovery of high-quality lead molecules, dramatically reducing the cost of drug discovery.

This new project will carry out research and development of new technology to enable fully-automated hands-free molecular discovery for the first time. Based at the new Rosalind Franklin Institute, it will be developed through a collaboration between large companies, SMEs, several universities, and the Medicines Discovery Catapult.

The discovery of bioactive molecules – such as drugs –  relies on the design, synthesis and testing of sets of molecules.  These candidate molecules tend to be synthesised using a small and reliable toolkit of tried and tested reactions.

Lead scientist, Professor Adam Nelson from the University of Leeds, said:

“Currently, it’s a rather conservative process – using a small number of building block types and a limited suite of reactions means we are only exploring a very small area of chemical space.”

“You can think of chemical space a bit like geographic space – it’s like exploring London and ignoring all the other cities, towns, and countryside.  This might be good for finding an interesting museum, but less good if you want to find the highest point in the UK!”

“It costs around $2 billion to bring a new drug to market because each new marketed drug you have to start around 50 drug discovery projects.”

“This won’t be a traditional chemistry lab.  It will have a unique design and harness robotics and AI to automate the discovery process.  It will allow hundreds or thousands of candidate molecules to be investigated at a time.  We aim to increase productivity by 5 to 10 times.”

“But faster processing isn’t enough.  We also want to find higher quality starting points for drug discovery to maximise the chances of success at later stages in the discovery pipeline.  This will enable to remain globally competitive in bring new drugs to the market that can meet the needs of patients.”

The heart of the new facility will be new instruments that will allow the direct observation of the interactions between drug candidates and target proteins.

“At the moment, the methods for doing this are slow and often don’t allow you to directly see the detailed hydrogen bonding interactions – understanding how proteins and drug candidates recognise each other is crucial for enabling effective drug discovery. This integrated suite of technologies will allow the UK to remain globally competitive in drug discovery.”