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To generate drug molecules of desired properties with computational methods is the holy grail in pharmaceutical research. Here we describe an AI strategy, retro drug design, or RDD, to generate novel small molecule drugs from scratch to meet predefined requirements, including but not limited to biological activity against a drug target, and optimal range of physicochemical and ADMET properties. Traditional predictive models were first trained over experimental data for the target properties, using an atom typing based molecular descriptor system, ATP. Monte Carlo sampling algorithm was then utilized to find the solutions in the ATP space defined by the target properties, and the deep learning model of Seq2Seq was employed to decode molecular structures from the solutions. To test feasibility of the algorithm, we challenged RDD to generate novel drugs that can activate μ opioid receptor (MOR) and penetrate blood brain barrier (BBB). Starting from vectors of random numbers, RDD generated 180,000 chemical structures, of which 78% were chemically valid. About 42,000 (31%) of the valid structures fell into the property space defined by MOR activity and BBB permeability. Out of the 42,000 structures, only 267 chemicals were commercially available, indicating a high extent of novelty of the AI-generated compounds. We purchased and assayed 96 compounds, and 25 of which were found to be MOR agonists. These compounds also have excellent BBB scores. The results presented in this paper illustrate that RDD has potential to revolutionize the current drug discovery process and create novel structures with multiple desired properties, including biological functions and ADMET properties. Availability of an AI-enabled fast track in drug discovery is essential to cope with emergent public health threat, such as pandemic of COVID-19.


Yuhong Wang, Sam Michael, Ruili Huang, Jinghua Zhao, Katlin Recabo, Danielle Bougie, Qiang Shu, Paul Shinn, Hongmao Sun. Retro Drug Design: From Target Properties to Molecular Structures. bioRxiv : the preprint server for biology. 2021 May 12

PMID: 34013260

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