An Oxford-based firm that uses artificial intelligence to develop new medicines has teamed up with a UK national science facility to screen more than 15,000 drugs for their effectiveness as a treatment for Covid-19.

Exscientia, a spinoff company from the University of Dundee that is now based in Oxford science park, said it had gained access to a large collection of existing drugs held by the Scripps research institute in California and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It will screen them in partnership with Diamond Light Source near Oxford, which works like a giant microscope and generates bright light that allows scientists to study viruses.

Exscientia hopes to discover a drug that can be repurposed to treat coronavirus within the next six to 12 months, whereupon it would be tested on Covid-19 patients, Prof Andrew Hopkins, the firm’s chief executive, told the Guardian. Any potential treatment could be made available for compassionate use before clinical trials are completed, but this would depend on how much can be manufactured quickly.

The drug collection, which comprises more than 15,000 compounds that have been approved and tested for human safety in clinical trials or pre-clinical studies, has been shipped from California to Oxford.

Prof David Stuart, director of life sciences at Diamond and professor of structural biology at Oxford University, said: “The drugs we are testing have either been approved by the [US regulator] FDA for other diseases or have been extensively tested for human safety. By being able to repurpose existing molecules, we can save a lot of time in the drug discovery process, meaning a faster route to clinical trials, and potentially a treatment for patients.”

Exscientia is using its biosensor technology to screen the drug molecules for effectiveness against Sars-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Covid-19.

Image Credit:  Geoff Caddick/AFP via Getty Images

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