The scientific field of chemistry has changed little over the past century. Most chemical production, or synthesis, is an artisanal, non-mechanized process. Research on automating chemistry is typically focused on manufacturing existing drugs and other chemicals, not on new discoveries. The process of new bioactive chemical discovery is still based on artisanal intuition and experimentation, making it slow and inefficient.
NCATS proposes to transform chemistry from an individualized craft to a modern, information-based science through A Specialized Platform for Innovative Research Exploration* (ASPIRE). By addressing long-standing challenges in the field of chemistry, including lack of standardization, low reproducibility and an inability to predict how new chemicals will behave, ASPIRE is designed to bring novel, safe and effective treatments to more patients more quickly at lower cost.
After more than a century of synthetic organic chemistry and pharmacology, scientists have no shared understanding of how the complete set of all possible chemicals overlaps with the world of biology. Translation requires the discovery and production of new chemicals that can modify biological targets. New biologically active chemicals can help researchers understand biological functions or become new drugs for treatment of diseases. Yet more than 99.9 percent of the possible chemicals that could be biologically relevant remain unexplored due to an antiquated way of approaching new chemistries, and it is currently impossible to predict the chemicals that will affect a particular biological target.
ASPIRE builds on the power of recent and emerging technological innovations. Chemical laboratory automation has advanced, as has microfluidic flow chemistry, which involves tiny amounts of reagents that move continuously through a system. High-throughput screening allows many experiments to run simultaneously in parallel. Machine learning enables significant computational improvement based on collective successful and failed experiments. This convergence of technologies provides a new opportunity to break translational bottlenecks in chemistry and benefit science and health.
This initiative promotes multidisciplinary collaborations among government, academic and pharmaceutical researchers; funders; professional societies; scientific publishers; and other stakeholders. ASPIRE supports NCATS’ work to develop, demonstrate and disseminate innovative technologies that will bring diagnosis and treatments to patients and will deliver on NIH’s efforts to increase reproducibility and scientific rigor.
* Formerly named the Automated Synthesis Platform for Innovative Research and Execution.