DrugEx v3: Scaffold-Constrained Drug Design with Graph Transformer-based Reinforcement Learning

06 December 2021, Version 1
This content is a preprint and has not undergone peer review at the time of posting.


Due to the large drug-like chemical space available to search for feasible drug-like molecules, rational drug design often starts from specific scaffolds to which side chains/substituents are added or modified. With the rapid growth of the application of deep learning in drug discovery, a variety of effective approaches have been developed for de novo drug design. In previous work, we proposed a method named DrugEx, which can be applied in polypharmacology based on multi-objective deep reinforcement learning. However, the previous version is trained under fixed objectives similar to other known methods and does not allow users to input any prior information (i.e. a desired scaffold). In order to improve the general applicability, we updated DrugEx to design drug molecules based on scaffolds which consist of multiple fragments provided by users. In this work, the Transformer model was employed to generate molecular structures. The Transformer is a multi-head self-attention deep learning model containing an encoder to receive scaffolds as input and a decoder to generate molecules as output. In order to deal with the graph representation of molecules we proposed a novel positional encoding for each atom and bond based on an adjacency matrix to extend the architecture of the Transformer. Each molecule was generated by growing and connecting procedures for the fragments in the given scaffold that were unified into one model. Moreover, we trained this generator under a reinforcement learning framework to increase the number of desired ligands. As a proof of concept, our proposed method was applied to design ligands for the adenosine A2A receptor (A2AAR) and compared with SMILES-based methods. The results demonstrated the effectiveness of our method in that 100% of the generated molecules are valid and most of them had a high predicted affinity value towards A2AAR with given scaffolds.


deep learning
reinforcement learning
policy gradient
drug design
multi-objective optimization

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