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The discovery of novel therapeutic compounds through de novo drug design represents a critical challenge in the field of pharmaceutical research. Traditional drug discovery approaches are often resource intensive and time consuming, leading researchers to explore innovative methods that harness the power of deep learning and reinforcement learning techniques. Here, we introduce a novel drug design approach called drugAI that leverages the Encoder–Decoder Transformer architecture in tandem with Reinforcement Learning via a Monte Carlo Tree Search (RL-MCTS) to expedite the process of drug discovery while ensuring the production of valid small molecules with drug-like characteristics and strong binding affinities towards their targets. We successfully integrated the Encoder–Decoder Transformer architecture, which generates molecular structures (drugs) from scratch with the RL-MCTS, serving as a reinforcement learning framework. The RL-MCTS combines the exploitation and exploration capabilities of a Monte Carlo Tree Search with the machine translation of a transformer-based Encoder–Decoder model. This dynamic approach allows the model to iteratively refine its drug candidate generation process, ensuring that the generated molecules adhere to essential physicochemical and biological constraints and effectively bind to their targets. The results from drugAI showcase the effectiveness of the proposed approach across various benchmark datasets, demonstrating a significant improvement in both the validity and drug-likeness of the generated compounds, compared to two existing benchmark methods. Moreover, drugAI ensures that the generated molecules exhibit strong binding affinities to their respective targets. In summary, this research highlights the real-world applications of drugAI in drug discovery pipelines, potentially accelerating the identification of promising drug candidates for a wide range of diseases.


This article was originally published in Pharmaceuticals, volume 17, in 2024.

Open access for this article was funded by a Chapman University Supporting Open Access Research and Scholarship (SOARS) award.


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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.



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