Coronavirus research: Menlo Park lab using robots, AI to find COVID-19 medication

MENLO PARK, Calif. (KGO) -- As the number of cases of COVID-19 increases, so does the pressure to develop an anti-viral to treat its symptoms. A lab on the Peninsula appears to have developed the right process at the right time to speed up that process.

"We're hoping to be able to take the full discovery of a candidate drug from roughly two years down to six months," said Peter Madrid, senior director of applied biosciences at SRI Biosciences in Menlo Park.

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It's in labs like his at SRI Biosciences where a team of scientists and engineers is trying to speed up a drug to battle COVID-19. With lives at stake, they believe a process they've developed over four years under a $14 million federal grant could be timely. It uses artificial intelligence to determine what molecules are the best to test to stop the virus from entering human cells. Robotics helps to reduce the labor-intensive evaluation of those molecules, allowing the work to be done 24 hours without human intervention.

"Our software is able to come up with ways to synthesize that compound," Dr. Madrid said. "And we're now translating that onto our automated synthesis system so that we can make key building blocks for producing that material."

SRI Biosciences just announced a collaboration to use artificial intelligence from Iktos, a Paris based company, that will further accelerate the development of a COVID-19 antiviral.

A key focus will be adapting existing antivirals, such as Gilead's remdesivir and the antimalarial drug Qualaquin, to see if they can stop COVID-19. Remdesivir was originally developed to treat Ebola.

"There's some evidence that those same mechanisms might be applicable to COVID-19," noted Dr. Madrid, "so we are directly pursuing some of our compounds that have been shown to be effective against Ebola and testing whether or not they might be useful for COVID-19."

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Once they identify a promising molecule, the lab's system, known as SynFINI, can also help guide researchers on how to step up supplies of the test drug.

This is exactly the kind of research and development that goes on in Silicon Valley that, in this case, could be perfectly timed to address COVID-19.

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