Merck KGaA links with AI firm to iron out side-effects during R&D


Germany’s Merck KGaA has begun a licensing agreement with Canadian pharma R&D company Cyclica using artificial intelligence (AI) to uncover new drug targets and predict any side effects.

Cyclica has a cloud-based technology that screens small molecules to determine their properties.

With the deal Merck hopes to quickly and efficiently find mechanisms of action, evaluate safety profiles and explore additional uses for several of its investigational small molecules.

While traditional development of small molecule drugs focuses on specific, disease associated protein targets, Cyclica’s approach tries to factor in the dozens, and perhaps hundreds of other interactions that can occur before it is eliminated from the body.

Cyclica’s Ligand Express technology makes it possible to capture a panoramic view of these interactions.

As the technology can model how a small molecule will interact with any known protein, it can help identify desirable ‘on-target’ interactions, as well as ‘off-target’ adverse effects elsewhere.

AI is playing an increasingly important role in drug development and this is just the latest example of how pharma companies are using the technology to reduce the risks involved and increase the chances of drugs making it through the rigorous clinical trial process.

Large scale clinical trials can cost billions of dollars to run, and failure can have considerable financial implications, as well as being devastating for patients treated with drugs trials that do not work, or have serious side effects.

Friedrich Rippmann, director of computational chemistry and biology at Merck, said: “A key part of our R&D strategy is to progress highly promising compounds as efficiently and rapidly as possible.”

“Assessing new technologies is central to how we will advance our discovery programs, and artificial intelligence applications like Ligand Express will provide important insights to enhance how we think about target identification to support phenotypic screening and off-target profiling in general.”

Merck KGaA’s German rival Bayer is also using AI in drug R&D. At the beginning of last month it signed an agreement with professional services firm Genpact to use AI to help predict side effects.