Life and death in a screening campaign

So, how do I enjoy my first day of furlough? Go out for a nice ride. And then read up on some statistics. More specifically, I was browsing the The R Book  and came across survival models. Such models are used to characterize time to events, where an event could be death of a patient or failure of a part and so on. In these types of models the dependent variable is the number of time units that pass till the event in question occurs. Usually the goal is to model the time to death (or failure) as a function of some properties of the individuals.

It occurred to me that molecules in a drug development pipeline also face a metaphorical life and death. More specifically, a drug development pipeline consists of a series of assays – primary, primary confirmation, secondary (orthogonal), ADME panel, animal model and so on. Each assay can be thought of as representing a time point in the screening campaign at which a compound could be discarded (“death”) or selected (“survived”) for further screening. While there are obvious reasons for why some compounds get selected from an assay and others do not (beyond just showing activity), it would be useful if we could quantify how molecular properties affect the number and types of compounds making it to the end of the screening campaign. Do certain scaffolds have a higher propensity of “surviving” till the in vivo assay? How does molecular weight, lipophilicity etc. affect a compounds “survival”? One could go up one level of abstraction and do a meta-analysis of screening campaigns where related assays would be grouped (so assays of type X all represent time point Y), allowing us to ask whether specific assays can be more or less indicative of a compounds survival in a campaign. Survival models allow us to address these questions.

How can we translate the screening pipeline to the domain of survival analysis? Since each assay represents a time point, we can assign a “survival time” to each compound equal to the number of assays it is tested in. Having defined the Y-variable, we must then select the independent variables. Feature selection is a never-ending topic so there’s lots of room to play. It is clear however, that descriptors derived from the assays (say ADMET related descriptors) will not be truly independent if those assays are part of the sequence.

Having defined the X and Y variables, how do we go about modeling this type of data? First, we must decide what type of survivorship curve characterizes our data. Such a curve characterizes the proportion of individuals alive at a certain time point. There are three types of survivorship curves: I, II and III corresponding to scenarios where individuals have a higher risk of death at later times, a constant risk of death and individuals have a higher risk of death at earlier times, respectively.

For the case of the a screening campaign, a Type III survivorship curve seems most appropriate. There are other details, but in general, they follow from the type of survivorship curve selected for modeling. I will note that the hazard function is an important choice to be made when using parametric models. There a variety of functions to choose from, but either require that you know the error distribution or else are willing to use trial and error. The alternative is to use a non-parametric approach. The most common approach for this class of models is the Cox proportional hazards model. I won’t go into the details of either approach, save to note that using a Cox model does not allow us to make predictions beyond the last time point whereas a parametric model would. For the case at hand, we are not really concerned with going beyond the last timepoint (i.e., the last assay) but are more interested in knowing what factors might affect survival of compounds through the assay sequence. So, a Cox model should be sufficient. The survival package provides the necessary methods in R.

OK – it sounds cute, but has some obvious limitations

  1. The use of a survival model assumes a linear time line. In many screening campaigns, the individual assays may not follow each other in a linear fashion. So either they must be collapsed into a linear sequence or else some assays should be discarded.
  2. A number of the steps represent ‘subjective selection’. In other words, each time a subset of molecules are selected, there is a degree of subjectivity involved – maybe certain scaffolds are more tractable for med chem than others or some notion of interesting combined with a hunch that it will work out. Essentially chemists will employ heuristics to guide the selection process – and these heuristics may not be fully quantifiable. Thus the choice of independent variables may not capture the nuances of these heuristics. But one could argue that it is possible the model captures the underlying heuristics via proxy variables (i.e., the descriptors) and that examination of those variables might provide some insight into the heuristics being employed.
  3. Data size will be an issue. As noted, this type of scenario requires the use of a Type III survivorship curve (i.e., most death occurs at earlier times and the death rate decreases with increasing time). However, decrease in death rate is extremely steep – out of 400,000 compounds screened in a primary assay, maybe 2000 will be cherry picked for confirmation and about 50 molecules may be tested in secondary, orthogonal assays. If we go out further to ADMET and in vivo assays, we may have fewer than 10 compounds to work with. At this stage I don’t know what effect such a steeply decreasing survivorship curve would have on the model.

The next step is to put together a dataset to see what we can pull out of a survival analysis of a screening campaign.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *