- Working with InhibOx
InhibOx was derived from Professor Graham Richards’ academic research in the Chemistry Department at Oxford University. The scientific side of InhibOx goes back to the idea of some Berkeley scientists who conceived the SETI@home project. The Berkeley group hit upon the notion of getting analysis software into a screensaver for use on home computers, and then issuing small computational jobs to each over the internet, returning the results to the scientists. It is a brilliant idea and has come to involve five million PCs. Some of the people associated with the project established the start-up company United Devices in Austin, Texas to try to exploit the idea.
Much of Graham’s own research is funded by a US cancer charity, The National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR). With their encouragement, he adapted the SETI idea to look for potential anti-cancer drugs, and launched Screensaver Lifesaver: doing essentially the same type of research done in pharmaceutical companies, but on a much, much larger scale. Drugs are usually small molecules that work by binding to a specific target site on a protein and interfere with its action. Many protein targets are known and more are being identified each year. His idea was thus simple in concept: build a database of as many small drug-like molecules as he could, making sure that they had appropriate properties and we knew how to synthesise them; identify target sites and develop methodologies to calculate just how well each small molecule can bind to the site; finally wrap them up in a screensaver and use the Internet to send the input to those PCs across the world running the project.
Graham’s partner in this was Keith Davies, the founder of the company Chemical Design Ltd. United Devices provided the distributed computing, with the initial project being sponsored by Intel. The success of the venture was amazing. More than three million PCs signed up, providing in excess of 400,000 hours of CPU time, permitting 14 cancer targets to be screened and yielding many thousands of potential drug leads. It remains, to this day, the world’s biggest ever computational chemistry experiment. Graham created a new company in 2001, InhibOx Ltd, to attract the funding necessary for the new methods being developed and to act as a channel for the new drug leads being discovered. Graham generously donated his shares in the new company to the NFCR so that a large part of the financial success of the company will benefit the charity, which will in turn recycle the cash back into cancer research.
InhibOx has developed steadily since that start in 2001. The Screensaver Lifesaver project showed how successful very large-scale screening can be, given adequate computing resource, so the company has tested other models to achieve this. In recent years, InhibOx has pioneered the use of cloud computing in computational chemistry, and has used the huge capacity this can deliver to build Scopius – the world’s largest high-quality screening database. It has also developed new methods for the rapid searching of Scopius against sophisticated combinations of required molecular shape, charge and other properties.
InhibOx entered a new phase in 2010 and has become a fully-fledged commercial entity, delivering drug discovery services to the pharma and biotech sectors, and implementing Scopius technologies at their customers’ sites, for use with their in-house data. They continue to collaborate with several of the world’s leading academic institutions, to develop ever-improving drug discovery technologies which make the most of today’s powerful on-demand computing resources.
(Extracted, in part, from “Spin-Outs: Creating Businesses from University Intellectual Property”, the book written by Professor Graham Richards, published by Harriman House, 2009, Hardback ISBN:9781905641987, ePub eBook ISBN:9781906659424.)