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Cambridge spearheads digital revolution in chemistry with new AI research centre



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Cambridge University’s Chemical & Engineering Biotechnology building
Cambridge University’s Chemical & Engineering Biotechnology building

A new Cambridge centre, the Innovation Centre in Digital Molecular Technologies, will be led by Professor Alexei Lapkin from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, following a partnership between pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and Shionogi.

The multimillion-pound new research facility, including bespoke laboratories and office space built, will accelerate access to pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, functional molecules and molecular materials through machine learning and robotics-based synthesis.

Part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, the collaboration has already started using existing work space at the department, while the new centre is being constructed. The initiative promises to spark a “a digital transformation in the chemical industry”, integrating high-throughput synthesis, analytics, chemical informatics, machine learning, robotics and reaction engineering.

“Access to new functional molecules and materials continues to be a major bottleneck in many chemistry-using industries, such as medicine, food, electronics and energy,” said Prof Lapkin, director of iDMT.

Professor Matthew Gaunt, co-director of iDMT and Director of the EPSRC SynTech centre for doctoral training, based in the Department of Chemistry, said: “Despite tremendous advances in chemistry, we still cannot always make all of the molecules we need on demand, especially when set against increasingly competitive business-driven timelines, and this means that we often miss out on many potential opportunities to, for example, develop new medicines.”

While traditional development methods for functional molecules have been tremendously successful , the digitalisation of discovery research, development and manufacturing of molecules and materials offers a step-change towards a new model of industry, where access to molecules will be faster, less resource intensive and without negative consequences for the environment.

Professor Alexei Lapkin, of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, is director of the iDMT
Professor Alexei Lapkin, of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, is director of the iDMT

“The transformational change that we believe is required in the way chemical synthesis is approached is based on a radical increase in the throughput of chemical discovery and process development,” said Prof Gaunt. “This can be achieved through the automation of largely routine procedures, and the adoption of artificial intelligence to guide synthetic chemists towards successful solutions in a more efficient manner. This frees up time of a scientist to develop new ideas.”

“It is very difficult to predict how chemical processes would behave at an industrial scale. For this reason, development and optimisation of chemical processes usually takes quite a long time,” added Prof Lapkin. “AI tools can help solve complex problems of chemical process design speeding up the transition from a working chemical reaction in the lab, to a scaled-up industrial process.”

The iDMT will support collaborative research projects with small and medium enterprises (SMEs) from across the UK, aiming to develop a technology base to support the emerging digital economy in the third largest manufacturing sector in the UK.

Dr Ryuichi Kiyama, senior executive officer, Pharmaceutical Research Division, Shionogi & Co, said: “We are proud to be part of this new innovative chemistry research consortium with the leading research institutes in the United Kingdom. As a pharmaceutical company with strengths in chemistry-driven small molecule drug discovery, we are committed to contribute to the discovery chemistry innovation in collaboration with researchers from the partner institutes and companies.”

The Chemistry Department. Picture: Gabriella Bocchetti
The Chemistry Department. Picture: Gabriella Bocchetti

The centre’s core academic team combines University expertise from the departments of chemistry, physics, and chemical engineering and biotechnology.

“Combining cross-disciplinary expertise from several departments at the University, with state-of-the-art facilities and support from two of the leading companies in this area has the potential to enable the development of many new solutions for the nascent industry of digital molecular technology,” noted Prof Lapkin.

“Facilitating knowledge exchange to SMEs so that they can develop the right product offer that would serve the needs of the large end-user companies in the pharma, agritech and wider chemical manufacturing sectors will enable an industry-wide shift in how synthesis, process design and manufacture are carried out.”

Construction of the facility is due to begin shortly, while the centre is already open for projects.

The centre accelerates the Cambridge brand as a global centre for research and is the second such facility to be announced this week: the other is a five-year agreement with AstraZeneca and GSK to fund the Cambridge Centre for AI in Medicine (CCAIM), whose director is Professor Mihaela van der Schaar, a globally-respected researcher in machine learning.

Professor Matthew Gaunt, co-director of iDMT and director of the EPSRC SynTech centre for doctoral training
Professor Matthew Gaunt, co-director of iDMT and director of the EPSRC SynTech centre for doctoral training


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