Inside the Center for Translational Research of SZBL, a highly automated industrial-grade robotic arm is operating with precision and sensitivity at high speed.
With a daily screening capacity of up to 150,000 compounds, this is currently one of the largest and most advanced high-throughput screening platforms in China. It is also the first platform in South China to reach industrial standards.
The birth of Imatinib owes its success to the revolutionary advancements in high-throughput screening technology. It is this technological innovation that has made target-based drug development a reality. Currently, ultra high-throughput screening continues to play an indispensable role in drug discovery, with over one-third of approved small molecule drugs obtained through this method.
Over the course of more than two decades of research overseas, several preclinical and clinical candidate small molecules, peptides, and antibodies have been developed, Shen Weijun, the director of the Center for Translational Research, stated that "the Ultra High-Throughput Screening Platform is one of the core platforms established by the center. Without following up on high-throughput screening, it would be impossible to continue the discovery of small molecule drugs targeting novel targets. The platform aims to match the world-class level of Calibr, the new drug development center of Scripps Research Institute, in the field of translational research."
"For a long time, China's pharmaceutical industry has been dominated by generic drugs, while the market share of innovative drugs has been occupied by foreign enterprises. There has been a lack of momentum in investing in new drug development platforms," said Wei Jingqiang, a translational senior researcher at the Center for Translational Research.
The Center for Translational Research brings together a group of internationally renowned experts with years of early-stage drug development experience overseas. Currently, there are nearly 120 full-time researchers, half of whom have doctoral degrees and overseas study and work experience.
Jeffrey Hill, a senior researcher who settled in Shenzhen from overseas, has successfully led more than five new drug projects into the clinical stage. He is currently responsible for the construction of the high-throughput screening platform full-time. "From the beginning, the platform's positioning is at the international top level, with a fully automated, industrial-grade, and complete process high-throughput screening system yielding a daily screening capacity of up to 150,000 compounds," said Jeffrey Hill.
The Ultra High-Throughput Screening Platform has already formed an international talent team that covers screening and equipment maintenance.
Centered around key research areas such as cancer, metabolism and cardiovascular diseases, and neurodegenerative diseases, the Center for Translational Research has established a comprehensive early-stage drug development platform. In addition to the ultra high-throughput screening platform, there are eight other functional platforms, including antibody engineering, peptide/protein therapy, and cell and gene therapy, serving as "express channels" for new drug development.
The success of high-throughput screening in drug development relies on the compound library tailored to the research objectives. Jeffrey Hill compares ultra high-throughput screening to an intelligent "arm" excavating a mine, where the compound library determines whether the "gold mine" can be discovered.
Inside the ultra-low temperature freezer at the Center for Translational Research, approximately one million small molecules are stored in the compound library. After multiple rounds of rigorous calculations and selection, the compound library significantly enhances the discovery of compounds with potential for new drug development. "In addition to the physical compound library-based high-throughput screening, the Center for Translational Research will also expand to a virtual screening platform with billions of organic molecules," said Jeffrey Hill. In fact, the number of organic molecules available for drug discovery has exceeded 1060, and the molecules obtained from virtual screening still require manual synthesis and verification. Wet lab experiments are still indispensable for AI, and deep learning of AI requires sufficient training with real databases.
"The eight functional platforms will collaborate to advance the preclinical development of advanced new drugs such as small molecules, antibodies, proteins, and cell therapy," said Shen Weijun. The Center for Translational Research is creating a platform that integrates IT and BT, promoting the translation of achievements to support basic research and realizing a sustainable and innovative drug development model "from the laboratory bench to the bedside."