50 years ago, computers helped speed up drug discovery

Excerpt from the February 23, 1974 issue of Science News

A bunch of pills on a blue background

Today, artificial intelligence can identify potential drug targets and develop medicines from scratch. But whether the approach can craft drugs that help patients remains to be seen.

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Cover of the February 23, 1974 issue of Science News

Cancer drugs by computerScience News, February 23, 1974

Chemists often need to sort a large number of compounds according to whether or not they possess a given property.… [Researchers] have been working on a technique of getting computers to teach themselves how to solve such problems. The most recent experiments indicate that the technique [based on pattern recognition] may be useful in finding cancer drugs.


Modern computers can do more than sift through known compounds. With advanced artificial intelligence, computers are helping scientists design novel molecules and predict how those compounds will react with proteins in the body, possibly leading to new cancer treatments (SN: 10/18/18). The technology is promising but still in its early days. Ultimately, most drug candidates will still falter in people, some scientists caution. In 2021, the international biotech company Exscientia launched the first trial of an AI-developed cancer drug. But the company shelved the drug in 2023 after it proved to be ineffective. Other AI cancer drugs are in various stages of testing.

Erin I. Garcia de Jesus is a staff writer at Science News. She holds a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Washington and a master’s in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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