Accelerated screening for active pharmaceutical ingredients

Research project receives over eleven million euros funding

February 10, 2023

In January the High Resolution Drug Screening project (HRDS ) took off. The researchers want to improve the testing of active pharmaceutical ingredients for drugs using a high-resolution light microscope and artificial intelligence. Two Max Planck spin-offs, Abberior GmbH and Lead Discovery Center GmbH, are also involved.

There is a high demand for new medicines worldwide, for example to combat cancer or serious infections (sepsis). In the search for suitable active ingredients, researchers have to test an infinite number of substances for their effectiveness and classify them correctly. In the early development phase, they use screening methods that are fast, but often only show that an active substance interacts with the target object, such as a cell. Exactly what is happening there can often only be seen by looking through the microscope.

However, the microscopes currently available to the pharmaceutical industry for this purpose usually have far too low a resolution to display the individual components of a cell with sufficient detail. For example, possible docking sites for active substances in the cell membrane, the so-called receptors, remain more or less in the dark.

High-resolution light microscope plus AI for fast and efficient screening

This is exactly where the HRDS funding project comes in: The research team led by the Goettingen scientist and Nobel Prize winner Stefan Hell (Director at the Max Planck Institute for Multidisciplinary Sciences in Göttingen and at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg) together with Gerald Donnert (Abberior, Goettingen) and Bert Klebl (Lead Discovery Center, Dortmund) as well as Stefan Jakobs (Fraunhofer Institute for Translational Medicine and Pharmacology, Göttingen) want to launch a new method for screening active ingredients for drugs over the next three years.

The key to more speed in the search for active pharmaceutical ingredients is to combine artificial intelligence with a fast, high-resolution light microscope based on the STED method developed by Hell (STED = Stimulated Emission Depletion). With this invention, the researchers led by Stefan Hell at the former Director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry revolutionized light microscopy. They were the first to find a way to overcome the Abbe resolution limit of light microscopes. This microscope can thus produce sharp images of structures that are smaller than 200 nm (nanometers, i.e. millionths of a millimetre) – even in living cells.

The AI then automatically evaluates the images. With their help, the system can independently recognize important cell structures and this accelerates the analysis of new drug candidates. Fluorescent dyes play an important role here. Abberior GmbH, a spin-off of the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry, contributes, among other things, its Director at the Max Planck technology-based fluorescent dyes, which were specially developed for high-resolution microscopy methods such as STED and MINFLUX, as well as its relevant expertise to the project. With the help of these special dyes and fluorescent probes, assays are to be developed that enable high-resolution drug screening.

Industrial partners and perspectives of the method

By the end of 2025, the industrial project partners aim to jointly make the innovative method a success and thus contribute to a faster development of new, highly effective drugs - for the benefit of patients and the healthcare system. If everything goes well and the method is used by the partners, great opportunities will open up for Germany in the field of medical technology and pharmacy.

The partners in the “High Resolution Drug Screening – HRDS” project are Abberior GmbH and the Fraunhofer Institute for Translational Medicine and Pharmacology from Göttingen, the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research from Heidelberg and the Lead Discovery Center GmbH (LDC) from Dortmund.

The LDC was founded in 2008 by the technology transfer organization Max Planck Innovation as a novel approach to use the potential of excellent research for the discovery of new therapies for diseases with a high unmet medical need. The company brings its expertise and infrastructure in drug discovery and screening to the HRDS project. HRDS will be funded with 11.7 million euros over the next three years as part of the "KMU-innovative: Photonics and Quantum Technologies" funding guideline.


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