The Oxford-based company Exscientia will use artificial intelligence to evaluate over 15,000 drugs in order to test them for effectiveness in curing coronavirus. The Scripps Research Institute in California is providing Exscientia with the collection of drugs that will be screened in the process.

This endeavour is to be undertaken in collaboration with another Oxford-based company, Diamond Light Source – a national synchrotron science facility, which acts as a giant microscope, operating by deflecting electrons through a magnetic field to generate a bright light that enables scientists to effectively study viruses. 

According to Professor Andrew Hopkins, the chief executive of Exscientia, the company is hopeful that they can discover a compound that can be repurposed to treat coronavirus within the next six to 12 months. Then, the drug would be used in clinical trials, being tested on patients diagnosed with COVID-19. Still, Hopkins emphasized that the timeline of the project is difficult to estimate.

“When designing a brand new drug, even when using Exscientia’s accelerated AI methods, we do not expect such a new molecule to be ready for testing in human clinical trials until the end of 2021. However, if we discover a molecule that already has regulatory safety data, we can speed that up to a matter of months before human testing can begin, depending on how fast we can source or manufacture sufficient quantities of the drug substance for clinical trials,” Hopkins said.

In a comment given to The Guardian, David Stuart, director of life sciences at Diamond and professor of structural biology at Oxford University, remarked on the ability of Exscientia’s drug discovery process to expedite the rate at which clinical trials can begin, while still ensuring safety. 

“The drugs we are testing have either been approved by the [US regulator] FDA for other diseases or have been extensively tested for human safety. By being able to repurpose existing molecules, we can save a lot of time in the drug discovery process, meaning a faster route to clinical trials, and potentially a treatment for patients,” Stuart said. 

The project started in the later half of March, and Exscientia projects that its first data sets will be ready within the next six to eight weeks. Drug molecules that appear to be viable combatants against Covid-19 at this stage will be further tested to ensure effectiveness as treatment against the virus.

Diamond Light Source has several online resources updating the public about the progression of this project. Dr David Owen, a structural biologist at Diamond, has provided updates about Diamond’s contribution to the project so far.

“[W]e are looking at clinically approved compounds with the view of repurposing drugs already available for other diseases. The … strategy could provide an accelerated platform for drug discovery against sars-cov-2. It should be stressed that the development of clinically approved antivirals can take more than a decade to develop and made available in the clinic. Our research at present will help guide the identification of potential strategies for selection of drugs to be screened and we hope will aid direct researchers in the current crisis,” Owen said in a recent update.

Exscientia specialises in drug discovery and design using artificial intelligence. In order to screen molecules for effectiveness against the virus, Exscientia will use algorithms, machine learning, and biosensor technology, which will assist researchers in analysing the viral pathogenesis of COVID-19.

In regards to the Exscientia’s collaboration with Diamond, Hopkins outlined the process as follows:

 “Firstly, we are generating a large amount of high-throughput screening data for 3 key COVID-19 drug targets through this collaboration with Scripps and Diamond. Secondly, we are also working with Diamond on discovering seed data to the design of new drugs, in what is called fragment screening, where we take compounds that may only be 1/3 the size of normal drugs, called a ‘fragment’ search, to find which ones may bind and provide us with anchor points from which our algorithms can evolve new compounds. For any hits we discover, Diamond are poised to also determine the protein structures of any drug molecules bound to one of the Coronavirus proteins. Three-dimensional structure data can accelerate novel drug design.”

In addition to Diamond, Exscientia is also working in partnership with Oxford University. Since January, Exscientia, Diamond, and the University have been working to develop proteins for drug screening in aims of producing viral proteins for screening and structural analysis, which can provide atomic-level detail that will assist researchers in understanding anti-viral properties. 

Vigorous efforts to find a cure for COVID-19 are happening globally and have generally focused on existing drugs – particularly the Japanese anti-flu drug favipiravir, HIV treatment Kaletra, Ebola drug remdesivir, and anti-malaria drug chloroquine. Results from clinical trials using remdesivir as treatment in China and the US are due in April. UK biotech company Synairgen is currently testing an experimental lung drug – which was developed as a treatment for chronic-obstructive pulmonary disorder – on COVID-19 patients.