Keywords: [ molecule optimization ] [ drug design ] [ molecule generation ]
Structure-based drug design (SBDD) aims to discover drug candidates by finding molecules (ligands) that bind tightly to a disease-related protein (targets), which is the primary approach to computer-aided drug discovery. Recently, applying deep generative models for three-dimensional (3D) molecular design conditioned on protein pockets to solve SBDD has attracted much attention, but their formulation as probabilistic modeling often leads to unsatisfactory optimization performance. On the other hand, traditional combinatorial optimization methods such as genetic algorithms (GA) have demonstrated state-of-the-art performance in various molecular optimization tasks. However, they do not utilize protein target structure to inform design steps but rely on a random-walk-like exploration, which leads to unstable performance and no knowledge transfer between different tasks despite the similar binding physics. To achieve a more stable and efficient SBDD, we propose Reinforced Genetic Algorithm (RGA) that uses neural models to prioritize the profitable design steps and suppress random-walk behavior. The neural models take the 3D structure of the targets and ligands as inputs and are pre-trained using native complex structures to utilize the knowledge of the shared binding physics from different targets and then fine-tuned during optimization. We conduct thorough empirical studies on optimizing binding affinity to various disease targets and show that RGA outperforms the baselines in terms of docking scores and is more robust to random initializations. The ablation study also indicates that the training on different targets helps improve the performance by leveraging the shared underlying physics of the binding processes. The code is available at https://github.com/futianfan/reinforced-genetic-algorithm.