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UK to pioneer full automation for drug discovery

The UK government has announced a new project to develop a fully-automated drug discovery facility to accelerate the production of new medicines.

Business Secretary Greg Clark said the project, based at the government-funded research facility the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Harwell, Oxfordshire, will pioneer ‘hands-free molecular discovery’ to generate new drugs at a speed of up to ten times than that of the norm. The Institute will harness new technologies such as AI and robotics to improve understanding of biology, in the hope of developing new diagnostics, new drugs and new treatments.

The first priority is to develop an integrated suite of new technologies able to accelerate the discovery of high-quality lead molecules, which would dramatically reduce the cost of drug discovery.

The Institute is also tasked with pioneering new ways of working with industry, as part of the UK’s AI and Data Grand Challenge, bridging the gap between university research and pharmaceutical companies or small businesses. As such, the project will be developed through a collaboration between companies, SMEs, universities, and the Medicines Discovery Catapult.

“This won’t be a traditional chemistry lab,” stressed lead scientist, Professor Adam Nelson, from the University of Leeds. “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… We also want to find higher quality starting points for drug discovery to maximize the chances of success at later stages in the discovery pipeline.”