How COVID-19 Could Usher In a New Age of Collective Drug Discovery


A COVID-19 moonshot program challenged chemists around the world to submit ideas for how best to design a drug to target the virus. (© By Photocreo Bednarek/Adobe)

By mid-March, Alpha Lee was growing restless. A pioneer of AI-driven drug discovery, Lee leads a team of researchers at the University of Cambridge, but his lab had been closed amidst the government-initiated lockdowns spreading inexorably across Europe.

If the Moonshot proves successful, they hope it could serve as a future benchmark for finding new medicines for chronic diseases.

Having spoken to his collaborators across the globe – many of whom were seeing their own experiments and research projects postponed indefinitely due to the pandemic – he noticed a similar sense of frustration and helplessness in the face of COVID-19.

While there was talk of finding a novel treatment for the virus, Lee was well aware the process was likely to be long and laborious. Traditional methods of drug discovery risked suffering the same fate as the efforts to find a cure for SARS in the early 2000, which took years and were ultimately abandoned long before a drug ever reached the market.

To avoid such an outcome, Lee was convinced that global collaboration was required. Together with a collection of scientists in the UK, US and Israel, he launched the ‘COVID Moonshot’ – a project which encouraged chemists worldwide to share their ideas for potential drug designs. If the Moonshot proves successful, they hope it could serve as a future benchmark for finding new medicines for chronic diseases.

Solving a Complex Jigsaw

In February, ShanghaiTech University published the first detailed snapshots of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus’s proteins using a technique called X-ray crystallography. In particular, they revealed a high-resolution profile of the virus’s main protease – the part of its structure that enables it to replicate inside a host – and the main drug target. The images were tantalizing. 

“We could see all the tiny pieces sitting in the structure like pieces of a jigsaw,” said Lee. “All we needed was for someone to come up with the best idea of joining these pieces together with a drug. Then you’d be left with a strong molecule which sits in the protease, and stops it from working, killing the virus in the process.”

Normally, ideas for how best to design such a drug would be kept as carefully guarded secrets within individual labs and companies due to their potential value. But as a result, the steady process of trial and error to reach an optimum design can take years to come to fruition.

However, given the scale of the global emergency, Lee felt that the scientific community would be open to collective brainstorming on a mass scale. “Big Pharma usually wouldn’t necessarily do this, but time is of the essence here,” he said. “It was a case of, ‘Let’s just rethink every drug discovery stage to see — ok, how can we go as fast as we can?’”

On March 13, he launched the COVID moonshot, calling for chemists around the globe to come up with the most creative ideas they could think of, on their laptops at home. No design was too weird or wacky to be considered, and crucially nothing would be patented. The entire project would be done on a not-for-profit basis, meaning that any drug that makes it to market will have been created simply for the good of humanity. 

It caught fire: Within just two weeks, more than 2,300 potential drug designs had been submitted. By the middle of July, over 10,000 had been received from scientists around the globe.   

The Road Toward Clinical Trials

With so many designs to choose from, the team has been attempting to whittle them down to a shortlist of the most promising. Computational drug discovery experts at Diamond and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, have enabled the Moonshot team to develop algorithms for predicting how quick and easy each design would be to make, and to predict how well each proposed drug might bind to the virus in real life.

The latter is an approach known as computational covalent docking and has previously been used in cancer research. “This was becoming more popular even before COVID-19, with several covalent drugs approved by the FDA in recent years,” said Nir London, professor of organic chemistry at the Weizmann Institute, and one of the Moonshot team members. “However, all of these were for oncology. A covalent drug against SARS-CoV-2 will certainly highlight covalent drug-discovery as a viable option.”

Through this approach, the team have selected 850 compounds to date, which they have manufactured and tested in various preclinical trials already. Fifty of these compounds – which appear to be especially promising when it comes to killing the virus in a test tube – are now being optimized further. 

Lee is hoping that at least one of these potential drugs will be shown to be effective in curing animals of COVID-19 within the next six months, a step that would allow the Moonshot team to reach out to potential pharmaceutical partners to test their compounds in humans.

Future Implications

If the project does succeed, some believe it could open the door to scientific crowdsourcing as a future means of generating novel medicine ideas for other diseases. Frank von Delft, professor of protein science and structural biology at the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Medicine, described it as a new form of ‘citizen science.’

“There’s a vast resource of expertise and imagination that is simply dying to be tapped into,” he said.

Others are slightly more skeptical, pointing out that the uniqueness of the current crisis has meant that many scientists were willing to contribute ideas without expecting any future compensation in return. This meant that it was easy to circumvent the traditional hurdles that prevent large-scale global collaborations from happening – namely how to decide who will profit from the final product and who will hold the intellectual property (IP) rights.

“I think it is too early to judge if this is a viable model for future drug discovery,” says London. “I am not sure that without the existential threat we would have seen so many contributions, and so many people and institutions willing to waive compensation and future royalties. Many scientists found themselves at home, frustrated that they don’t have a way to contribute to the fight against COVID-19, and this project gave them an opportunity. Plus many can get behind the fact that this project has no associated IP and no one will get rich off of this effort. This breaks down a lot of the typical barriers and red-tape for wider collaboration.”

“If a drug would sprout from one of these crowdsourced ideas, it would serve as a very powerful argument to consider this mode of drug discovery further in the future.”

However the Moonshot team believes that if they can succeed, it will at the very least send a strong statement to policy makers and the scientific community that greater efforts should be made to make such large-scale collaborations more feasible.

“All across the scientific world, we’ve seen unprecedented adoption of open-science, collaboration and collegiality during this crisis, perhaps recognizing that only a coordinated global effort could address this global challenge,” says London. “If a drug would sprout from one of these crowdsourced ideas, it would serve as a very powerful argument to consider this mode of drug discovery further in the future.”

[An earlier version of this article was published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]

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