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Design of potent antimalarials with generative chemistry


Recent advances in generative modelling allow designing novel compounds through deep neural networks. One such neural network model, JT-VAE (the Junction Tree Variational Auto-Encoder), excels at proposing chemically valid structures. Here, on the basis of JT-VAE, we built a generative modelling approach, JAEGER, for finding novel chemical matter with desired bioactivity. Using JAEGER, we designed compounds to inhibit malaria. To prioritize the compounds for synthesis, we used the in-house pQSAR (Profile-QSAR) program, a massively multitask bioactivity model based on 12,000 Novartis assays. On the basis of pQSAR activity predictions, we selected, synthesized and experimentally profiled two compounds. Both compounds exhibited low nanomolar activity in a malaria proliferation assay as well as a biochemical assay measuring activity against PI(4)K, which is an essential kinase that regulates intracellular development in malaria. The compounds also showed low activity in a cytotoxicity assay. Our findings show that JAEGER is a viable approach for finding novel active compounds for drug discovery.

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Fig. 1: Overview of JAEGER.
Fig. 2: Distribution of calculated properties of training molecules and the 282 molecules generated by the model.
Fig. 3: Structures of synthesized compounds.
Fig. 4: Profiling results for compounds 1 and 2 over three assays.

Data availability

The data used in this study are proprietary to Novartis. The data are not publicly available due to intellectual property restrictions. A demo dataset is available from the ChEMBL – Neglected Tropical Disease archive at

Code availability

The code for JAEGER is available in Supplementary Software and at


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We express our gratitude to colleagues at Novartis that collected the data that were used to build the malaria model. We thank C. Sarko and W. Cortopassi for valuable discussions.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



W.J.G. and W.A.G. initiated, designed and led the study. W.J.G. and E.J. Ma developed and implemented JAEGER. W.J.G. built the malaria model and sampling algorithms. W.A.G. sampled the antimalarial molecule ideas. A.T.C. and L.P. conducted the profiling experiments and collected data. P.S.-C., J.L.J. and S.M.C. provided computational and synthesis resources as well as feedback. J.M.Y. designed the seed compound and provided feedback. E.J. Martin performed cheminformatics modelling and provided feedback. W.J.G., E.J. Martin, and W.A.G. analysed and interpreted the results. W.J.G. and W.A.G. wrote the manuscript. All authors reviewed the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to William J. Godinez or W. Armand Guiguemde.

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Competing interests

All authors are (or were at the time of their involvement with the studies) employees of Novartis.

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Peer review information

Nature Machine Intelligence thanks Milad Salem and David Winkler for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Extended Data Table 1 Tanimoto similarities

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–5 and Note.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Software

Source code for JAEGER.

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Godinez, W.J., Ma, E.J., Chao, A.T. et al. Design of potent antimalarials with generative chemistry. Nat Mach Intell 4, 180–186 (2022).

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