New research project aims to accelerate screening for active pharmaceutical ingredients

Over 11 million euros funding

High-resolution image of a living human cancer cell. ©Abberior GmbH

In January the BMBF-funded project HRDS (High Resolution Drug Screening) took off. The researchers want to improve the testing of active pharmaceutical ingredients for drugs using a high-resolution light microscope and artificial intelligence (AI). Two Max Planck spin-offs, Abberior GmbH and Lead Discovery Center GmbH, are also involved.

There is a high demand for new medicines worldwide, for example to combat cancer or serious infections (sepsis). In the search for suitable active ingredients, researchers have to test an infinite number of substances for their effectiveness and classify them correctly. In the early development phase, they use screening methods that are fast, but often only show that an active substance interacts with the target object, such as a cell. Exactly what is happening there can often only be seen by looking through the microscope.
However, the microscopes currently available to the pharmaceutical industry for this purpose usually have far too low a resolution to display the individual components of a cell with sufficient detail. For example, possible docking sites for active substances in the cell membrane, the so-called receptors, remain more or less in the dark.

High-resolution light microscope plus AI for fast and efficient screening

This is exactly where the HRDS funding project comes in: The research team led by the Goettingen scientist and Nobel Prize winner Professor Stefan Hell (Director at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Multidisciplinary Sciences in Göttingen and at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg) together with dr Gerald Donnert (Abberior GmbH, Goettingen) and Dr. Bert Klebl (Lead Discovery Center GmbH, Dortmund) as well as Professor Stefan Jakobs (Fraunhofer Institute for Translational Medicine and Pharmacology, Göttingen) want to launch a new method for screening active ingredients for drugs over the next three years.

The key to more speed in the search for active pharmaceutical ingredients is to combine artificial intelligence with a fast, high-resolution light microscope based on the STED method developed by Hell (STED = Stimulated Emission Depletion). With this invention, the researchers led by Stefan Hell at the former MPI for Biophysical Chemistry revolutionized light microscopy. They were the first to find a way to overcome the Abbe resolution limit of light microscopes. This microscope can thus produce sharp images of structures that are smaller than 200 nm (nanometers, i.e. millionths of a millimetre) – even in living cells.

The AI then automatically evaluates the images. With their help, the system can independently recognize important cell structures and this accelerates the analysis of new drug candidates. Fluorescent dyes play an important role here. Abberior GmbH, a spin-off of the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry, contributes, among other things, its MPI technology-based fluorescent dyes, which were specially developed for high-resolution microscopy methods such as STED and MINFLUX, as well as its relevant expertise to the project. With the help of these special dyes and fluorescent probes, assays are to be developed that enable high-resolution drug screening.

Industrial partners and perspectives of the method

By the end of 2025, the industrial project partners aim to jointly make the innovative method a success and thus contribute to a faster development of new, highly effective drugs - for the benefit of patients and the healthcare system. If everything goes well and the method is used by the partners, great opportunities will open up for Germany in the field of medical technology and pharmacy.

The partners in the “High Resolution Drug Screening – HRDS” project are Abberior GmbH and the Fraunhofer Institute for Translational Medicine and Pharmacology (ITMP) from Göttingen, the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research from Heidelberg and the Lead Discovery Center GmbH (LDC) from Dortmund. The LDC was founded in 2008 by the technology transfer organization Max Planck Innovation as a novel approach to use the potential of excellent research for the discovery of new therapies for diseases with a high unmet medical need. The company brings its expertise and infrastructure in drug discovery and screening to the HRDS project. HRDS will be funded with 11.7 million euros over the next three years as part of the "KMU-innovative: Photonics and Quantum Technologies" funding guideline.

About Abberior

Founded as a spin-off from Prof. Stefan W. Hell’s laboratory, Abberior has become a world-leading innovator and manufacturer of cutting-edge superresolution and confocal microscopes. As the only manufacturer of superresolution microscopes, abberior develops and sells proprietary fluorescent dyes and labels ideally suited for superresolution microscopies, such as STED, MINFLUX, GSD, PALM, STORM, GSDIM, SIM, and RESOLFT. They also give outstanding results in confocal and epifluorescence microscopy as well as in single-molecule applications. Our mission is to become the leading supplier of fluorescent labels in superresolution microscopy.

About LDC

Lead Discovery Center GmbH (LDC) was established in 2008 by the technology transfer organization Max Planck Innovation, as a novel approach to capitalize on the potential of excellent basic research for the discovery of new therapies for diseases with high medical need. The LDC takes on promising early-stage projects from academia and transforms them into innovative pharmaceutical leads and antibodies that reach initial proof-of-concept in animals as well as candidate nomination. In close collaboration with high-profile partners from research and industry, the LDC is building a strong and growing portfolio of small molecule and antibody leads with exceptional medical and commercial potential. LDC sustains a long-term partnership with the Max Planck Society, KHAN-I GmbH & Co.KG and has formed alliances with AstraZeneca, Bayer, Boehringer Ingelheim, Merck KGaA, Daiichi Sankyo, Qurient, Roche, Apeiron, e.g. In addition, LDC also works with leading translational drug discovery centers and with various investors to provide its assets for company creation.
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About Max Planck Institute for Medical Research

At the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, physicists, chemists and biologists create knowledge of long-term relevance to basic medical science. The institute has a unifying theme: observing and controlling the vastly complex macromolecular interactions in the context of cells - both in health and disease. The presently four departments contribute to this goal through their complementary expertise. They work on optical microscopy with nanometer resolution, on the design of chemical reporter molecules, on macromolecular structure determination and on cellular, materials and biophysical sciences. The institute has a distinguished history of fundamental breakthroughs, evidenced by six Nobel Prizes awarded to its researchers since its foundation.

About ITMP

The Fraunhofer Institute for Translational Medicine and Pharmacology ITMP investigates and develops innovative ways of early detection, diagnosis and treatment of diseases resulting from impaired function of the immune system. It comprises three research areas “Drug Discovery”, “Preclinical Research” and “Clinical Research”. Fraunhofer ITMP is a competent partner for universities, for translating medical research findings into valuable assets, as well as for the pharmaceutical and biotechnological industry.


About Max Planck Innovation

As the technology transfer organization of the Max Planck Society, Max Planck Innovation is the link between industry and basic research. With our interdisciplinary team, we advise and support scientists at the Max Planck Institutes in evaluating inventions, filing patents and starting businesses. We offer industry central access to the innovations of the Max Planck Institutes. We are therefore fulfilling an important task: The transfer of results from basic research into commercially and socially useful products.
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