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Drug Discovery

War in Ukraine has knock-ons for drug discovery

Ukraine and Russia were the source of up to 80% of screening compounds; reduced access could delay projects by months, experts say

by Laura Howes
March 23, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 11


A woman stands in front of rows of cabinets. She is scanning the bar code on a vial she has removed from one of the drawers.
Credit: Enamine
Drug discovery firms have lost access to a large body of premade screening chemicals, as well as on-demand libraries.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upended lives, but it is also causing ripples in businesses far from the front line. Drug discovery, experts say, is about to get much trickier.

In 2018, Duncan B Judd of the consulting firm Awridian teamed up with researchers in Ukraine, Latvia, and France to survey the market for high-throughput screening compounds used in drug discovery (Drug Discov. Today 2019, DOI: 10.1016/j.drudis.2018.10.016). They concluded that companies in Ukraine and Russia like Enamine, Life Chemicals, and ChemDiv supply around 80% of the world’s screening compounds. “I’m not sure people realize the scale of the problem,” he now says. “It’s going to make a big impact.”

Jonathan Heal, who leads the in silico team at RxCelerate, a UK-based contract research organization (CRO), says these companies are an essential part of the drug discovery ecosystem. “When we saw that Ukraine have been invaded, we realized straightaway that this was going to create some problems,” he says.

To fulfill customer orders, Heal says, RxCelerate is managing to find only around 30% of the compounds previously available, and that’s with much extra effort.

At Chemspace, an aggregator that functions like a one-stop shop for screening compounds, the reduction is even worse. CEO Yurii Moroz says the firm, which is based in Ukraine and has sites in Latvia and New Jersey, offered close to 5 billion items before the war—both off-the-shelf chemicals and on-demand items. “We still have probably one-tenth of in-stock offer available to our customers,” he says, and the firm can’t offer chemicals made on demand.

Moroz says Chemspace is looking at alternative suppliers from China, India, and Europe. However, that will add time and cost. One country Chemspace won’t be working with is Russia. It has stopped listing chemicals from Russian suppliers and refuses to do business with companies registered there, he says.

Judd estimates that these disruptions could easily add 6–12 months to early-stage drug discovery projects. “That’s time you can ill afford,” he stresses. And even if the war ended tomorrow, it is unclear how quickly Ukrainian companies will be able to get back to full strength or if customers will want to deal with Russian firms.

The disruptions might accelerate other developments in drug discovery, RxCelerate’s Heal suggests. Late last year, researchers working with Enamine showed how searching large virtual libraries based on available building-block molecules could speed up the discovery process (Nature 2022, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-04220-9). RxCelerate is now accelerating plans to launch a similar service to virtually screen billions of compounds that could be made with building blocks readily available in the UK. The firm hopes to launch it next month.

“It’s important to be proactive here, and to not assume that everything is going to go back to normal anytime soon,” Heal says.



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