A few days back, Derek Lowe posted a comment from a reader who suggested a way to approach the current employment challenges in the pharmaceutical industry would be the formation of a Federation of Independent Scientists. Such a federation would be open to consultants, small companies etc and would use its size to obtain group rates on various things – journal access, health insurance and so on. Obviously, there’s a lot of details left out here and when you go in the nitty gritty a lot of issues arise that don’t have simple answers. Nevertheless, an interesting (and welcome, as evidenced by the comment thread) idea.
One aspect raised by a commenter was access to modeling and docking software by such a group. He mentioned that he’d
… like to see an open source initiative develop a free, open source drug discovery package.Why not, all the underlying force fields and QM models have been published … it would just take a team of dedicated programmers and computational chemists time and passion to create it.
This is the very essence of the Blue Obelisk movement, under whose umbrella there is now a wide variety of computation chemistry and cheminformatics software. There’s certainly no lack of passion in the Open Source chemistry software community. As most of it is based on volunteer effort, time is always an issue. This has a direct effect on the features provided by Open Source chemistry software – such software does not always match up to commercial tools. But as the commenter above pointed out, much of the algorithms underlying proprietrary software is published. It just needs somebody with the time and expertise to implement them. And the combination of these two (in the absence of funding) is not always easy to find.
Of course, having access to the software is just one step. A scientists requires (possibly significant) hardware resources to run the software. Another comment raised this issue and asked about the possibility of a cloud based install of comp chem software.
With regards the sophisticated modelling tools – do they have to be locally installed?
How do the big pharma companies deploy the software now? I would be very suprised if it wasn’t easily packaged, although I guess the number of people using it is limited.
I’m thinking of some kind of virtual server, or remote desktop style operation. Your individual contractor can connect from whereever, and have full access to a range of tools, then transfer their data back to their own location for safekeeping.
Unlike CloudBioLinux, which provides a collection of bioinformatics and structural biology software as a prepackaged AMI for Amazons EC2 platform, I’m not aware of a similarly prepackaged set of Open Source tools for chemistry. And certainly not based on the cloud. (There are some companies that host comp chem software on the cloud and provide access to these installations for a fee). While some Linux distribibutions do package a number of scientific packages (UbuntuScience for example), I don’t think that these would support a computational drug discovery operation. (The above comment does’nt necessarily focus just on Open Source software. One could consider commercial software hosted on remote servers, though I wonder what type of licensing would be involved).
The last component would be the issue of data, primarily for cloud based solutions. While compute cycles on such platforms are usually cheap, bandwidth can be expensive. Granted, chemical data is not as big as biological data (cf. 1000Genomes on AWS), but sending a large collection of conformers over the network may not be very cost-effective. One way to bypass this would be to generate “standard” conformer collections and other such libraries and host them on the cloud. But what is “standard” and who would pay for hosting costs is an open question.
But I do think there is a sufficiently rich ecosystem of Open Source software that could serve much of the computational needs of a “Federation of Independent Scientists”. It’d be interesting to put together a list of Open Source based on requirements from the the commenters in that thread.
Gamification is a hot topic and companies such as Tunedit and Kaggle are succesfully hosting a variety of data mining competitions. These competitions employ data from a variety of domains such as bond trading, essay scoring and so on. Recently, both platforms have hosted a QSAR challenge (though not officially denoted as such). The most recent one is the challenge hosted at Kaggle by Boehringer Ingelheim.
While it’s good to see these competitions raise the profile of “data science” (and make some money for the winners), I must admit that these are not particularly interesting to me as it really boils down to looking at numbers with no context (aka domain knowledge). For example, in the Kaggle & BI example, there are 1,776 descriptors that have been normalized but no indication of the chemistry or biology. One could ask whether a certain mechanism of action is known to play a role in the biology being tested which could suggest a certain class of descriptors over another. Alternatively, one could ask whether there are a few distinct chemotypes present thus suggesting multiple local models versus a single global model. (I suppose that the supplied descriptors may lend themselves to a clustering, but a scaffold based approach would be much more direct and chemically intuitive).
This is not to say that such competitions are useless. On the contrary, lack of domain knowledge doesn’t preclude one from apply sophisticated statistical and machine learning methods to unannotated data and obtaining impressive results. The issue of data versus domain knowledge has been discussed in several places.
In contrast to the currently hosted challenge at Kaggle, an interesting twist would be to try and reverse engineer the structures from their descriptor values. There have been some previous discussions on reverse engineering structures from descriptor data. Obviously, we’re not going to be able to verify our results, but it would be an interesting challenge.
Another ACS National meeting is over, this time in San Diego. It was good to catch up with old friends and meet many new, interesting people. As I was there for a relatively short period, I bounced around most sessions.
MEDI and COMP had a joint session on desktop modeling and its utility in medicinal chemistry. Anthony Nicholls gave an excellent talk, where he differentiated between “strong signals” and “weak signals”, the former being extremely obvious trends, features or facts that do not require a high degree of specialized exerptise to detect and the latter being those that do require significantly more expertise to identify. An example of a strong signal would be an empty region of a binding pocket that is not occupied by a ligand feature – it’s pretty easy to spot this and when hihglighted the possible actions are also obvious. A weak signal could be a pi-stacking interaction which could be difficult to identify in a crowded 3D diagram. He then highlighted how simple modifications to traditional 2D depictions can be used to make the obvious more obvious and make features that might be subtle, say in 3D, more obvious in a 2D depiction. Overall, an elegant talk, that focused on how simple visual cues in 2D & pseudo-3D depictions can key the mind to focus on important elements.
There were two other symposia that were of particular interest. On Sunday Shuxing Zhang and Sean Eakins organized a symposium on polypharmacology with an excellent line up of speakers including Chris Lipinski. Curt Breneman gave a nice talk that highlighted best practices in QSAR modeling and Marti Head gave a great talk on the role and value of docking in computational modeling projects.
On Tuesday, Jan Kuras and Tudor Oprea organized a session on System Chemical Biology. Though the session appeared to be more on the lines of drug repurposing, there were several interesting talks. Ebelebola May from Sandia Labs gave a very interesting talk on a system level model of small molecule inhibition of M. Tuberculosis and F. Tularensis - combining metabolic pathway models and cheminformatics.
John Overington gave a very interesting talk on identifying drug combinations to improve safety. Contrary to much of my reading in this area, he points out the value of “me-too” drugs and taking combinations of such drugs. Given that such drugs hit the same target, he pointed out that this results in the fact that off-targets will see reduced concentrations of the individual drugs (hopefully reducing side effects) while the on-target will see the pooled concentration (thus maintaining efficacy (?)). It’s definitely a contrasting view to the one where we identify combinations of drugs hitting different targets (which I’d guess is a tougher proposition, since identifying a truly synergistic combination requires a detailed knowledge of the underlying pathways and interactions). He also pointed out that his analyses indicated that combination dosing is not actually reduced, in contrast to the current dogma.
As before we had a CINFlash session which I think went quite well – 8 diverse speakers with a pretty good audience. The slides of the talks have been made available and we plan to have another session in Philadelphia this Fall, so consider submitting something. We also had a great Scholarships for Scientific Excellence poster session – 15 posters covering topics ranging from reaction prediction to an analysis of retractions. Excellent work, and very encouraging to see newcomers to CINF interested in getting more invovled.
The only downsides to the meeting was the chilly and unsunny weather and the fact that people still think that displaying tables of numbers in a slide actually transmits any information!
For some time I have been thinking of the analogy between linguistics (and text mining of language data) and chemistry, specifically from the point of view of fragments (though, the relationship between the two fields is actually quite long and deep, since many techniques from IR have been employed in cheminformatics). For example, atoms and bonds can be considered an “alphabet” for chemical structures. Going one level up, one can consider fragments as words, which can be joined together to form larger structures (with the linguistic analog being sentences). In a talk I gave at the ACS sometime back I compared fragments with n-grams (though LINGO‘s are probably a more direct analog).
On these lines I have been playing with text mining and modeling tools in R, mainly via the excellent tm package. One of the techniques I have been playing around with is Latent Dirichlet Allocation. This is a generative modeling approach, allowing one to associate a document (composed of a set of words) with a “topic”. Here, a topic is a group of words that have a higher probability of being generated from that topic than another topic. The technique assumes that a document is comprised of a mixture of topics – as a result, one can assign a document to different topics with different probabilities. There have been a number of applications of LDA in bioinformatics with some applications focusing on topic models as way to cluster objects such as genes [1, 2], whereas others have used it in the more traditional document grouping context .
In text mining scenario, developing an LDA model for a set of documents is relatively straightforward (in R) – perform a series of pre-processing steps (mainly to standardize the text) such as converting everything to lower case, removing stopwords and so on. At the end of this one has a series of documents, each one being represented as a bag of words. The collection of words across all documents can be converted to a document-term matrix (documents in the rows, words in the columns) which is then used as input to the LDA routine.
Those familiar with building predictive models with keyed fingerprints will find this quite familiar – the individual bit positions represent structural fragments, thus are the chemical analogs of words. Based on this observation I wondered what I would get (and what it would mean) by applying a technique like LDA to a collection structures and their fragments.
My initial thought is that the use of LDA to determine a set of topics for a collection of chemical structures is essentially a clustering of the molecules, with the terms associated with the topics being representative substructures for that “cluster”. With these topics in hand, it wil be interesting to see what (or whether) properties (physical, chemical , biological) may be correlated with the clusters/topics identified. The rest of this post describes a quick first look at this, using ChEMBL as the source of structures and R for performing pre-processing and modeling.
Structures & fragments
We had previously fragmented ChEMBL (v8) in house, so obtaining the data was just a matter of running an SQL query to identify all fragments that occured in 50 or molecules and retrieving their structures and the molecules they were associated with. This gives us 190,252 molecules covered by 6,110 fragments. While a traditional text document-based modeling project would involved a series of pre-processing steps, the only one I need to perform in this scenario is the removal of small (and thus likely very common) fragments such as benzene – the cheminformatics equivalent of removing stopwords. (Ideally I would also remove fragments that already occur in other fragments – the cheminformatics equivalent of stemming)
The data file I have is of the form
fragment_id, molregno, smiles, natom
where natom is the number of atoms in the fragment. The R code to generate (relatively) clean data, read to feed to the LDA function looks like:
frags <- read.table('chembl.data', header=TRUE, as.is=TRUE, comment='', sep=',')
names(frags) <- c('fid', 'molid', 'smiles', 'natom')
frags <- subset(frags, natom >= 8)
## now we create the "documents"
tmp <- by(frags, frags$molid, function(x) return( c(x$molid, join(x$smiles, ' '))))
tmp <- data.frame(do.call('rbind', tmp), stringsAsFactors=FALSE)
names(tmp) <- c('title', 'text')
In the code above, we rearrange the data to create “documents” – identified by a title (the molecule identifier) with the body of the document being the space concatenated SMILES for the fragments associated with that molecule. In other words, a molecule (document) is constructed from a set of fragments (words). With the data arranged in this form we can go ahead and reuse code from the tm and topicmodels packages.
## Get a document-term matrix
corpus <- Corpus(VectorSource(tmp$text))
dtm <- DocumentTermMatrix(corpus, control = list(tolower=FALSE))
Finally, we’re ready to develop some models, starting of with 6 topics.
SEED <- 1234
lda.model <- LDA(dtm, k=6, control=list(seed=SEED))
So, what are the topics that have been identified? As I noted above, each topic is really a set of “words” that have a higher probability of being generated by that topic. In the case of this model we obtain the following top 4 fragments associated with each topic (most likely fragments are at the top of the table):
Visual inspection clearly suggests distinct differences in the topics – topic 1 appears to be characterized primarily by the lack of aromaticity, whereas topic 2 appears to be characterized by quinoline and indole type structures. This is just a rough inspection of the most likely “terms” for each topic. It’s also interesting to look at how the molecules (a.k.a., documents) are assigned to the topics. The barchart indicates the distribution of molecules amongst the 6 topics.
As with other unsupervised clustering methods, the choice of k (i.e., the number of topics) is tricky. A priori there is no reason to choose one over the other. Blei in his original paper used “perplexity” as a measure of the models generalizability (smaller values are better). In this case, we can vary k and evaluate the perplexity: with 6 topics the perplexity is 1122, with 12 topics it drops to 786 and with 100 topics it drops to 308 – you can see that it seems to continuously decrease with increase in number of topics (which has been observed elsewhere, though in my case, the hyperparameters are kept constant). Wallach et al have discussed various approaches to evaluating topic models.
Numerical evaluation of these models is useful, but we’re more interested in how these assignments correlate with chemical or biological features. First, one could look at the structural homogenity of the molecules assigned to topics. For k = 6, this is probably not useful, as the individual groups are very large. With k = 100 one obtains a much more sensible estimate of homogeneity (but this is to be expected). Another way to evaluate the topics from chemical point of view is to look at some property or activity. Given that ChEMBL provides assay and target information for the molecules, we have many ways to perform this evaluation. As a brief example, we can consider activity distrbutions derived from the molecules associated with each topic. Most ChEMBL molecules have multiple activities associated with them as many are tested in multiple assays. To allow comparison we converted activities in a given assay to Z-scores, allow comparison of activitives across assays. Then for each molecule, we identified the minimum activity, only considering those activities that were annotated as IC50 and as exact (i.e., not < or >). After removal of a few extreme outliers we obtain:
Clearly, within each group, the Z-scores cluster tightly around 0. It appears that the groups differentiate from each other in terms of the extreme values. Indeed plotting summary statistics for each group confirms this – in fact the median Z-score has a range of 0.05 and the mean Z-score a range of 0.11 across the six groups. In other words, the bulk of the groups are quite similar.
The example shown here is rather simplistic and is the equivalent of unsupervised clustering. One obvious next step is to search the parameter space of the LDA model, evaluate different approaches to estimating the posterior distribution (EM or Gibbs sampling) and so on. A number of extensions to the basic LDA technique have been proposed, one of them being a supervised form of LDA.
It’d also be useful to look at this method on a slightly smaller, labeled dataset – I’ve run some preliminary experiments on the Bursi AMES but those results need a little more work. More generally, smaller datasets can be problematic as the number of unique fragments can be low. In addition fewer observations means that the estimates of the posterior distribution becomes fuzzier. One way around this is to develop a model on something like the ChEMBL dataset I used here and then apply that to smaller datasets. Obviously, this goes towards ideas of applicability – but given the size of ChEMBL, it may indeed “cover” many smaller datasets.
Is this useful?
At first sight, it’s an interesting method that identifies groupings in an unsupervised manner. Of course, one could easily run k-means or any of the hierarchical clustering methods to achieve the same result. However, the generative aspect of LDA models is what is of interest to me, but also seems the part that is difficult to map to a chemical setting – unlike topics in a document, which one can (usually) understand based on the likely terms for that topic, it’s not clear what a topic is for a collection of molecules in an unsupervised setting. And then, how does one infer the meaning of a topic from fragments? While it’s certainly true that certain fragments are associated with specific properties/activities, this is certainly not a given (unlike words, where each one does have an individual meaning). Furthermore, in an unsupervised setting like the one I’ve described here, fishing for a correlation between (some set of) properties and groupings of molecules is probably not the way to go.
The other day I was exchanging emails with John Van Drie regarding open challenges in cheminformatics (which I’ll say more about later). One of his comments concerned the slow speed of chemical searches
Google searches are screamingly fast, so fast that the type-ahead feature is doing the search as you key characters in. Why are all chemical searches so sloooow? … Ideally, as you sketch your mol in, the searches should be happening at the same pace, like the typeahead feature.
Now, he doesn’t specifically mention what type of chemical search – it could be exact matches, similarity searches, substructure or pharmacophore searches. The first two can be done very quickly and lend themselves easily to type ahead type search interfaces. In light of the work my colleague has been doing, the substructure searches are now also amenable to a type ahead interface.
So I quickly put together a simple web page that lets you type in a SMILES (or SMARTS) and as you type it retrieves the results of a substructure search via the NCTT Search Server REST API. (In some cases the depiction is broken – that’s a bug on my side). Of course, typing in SMILES is not the most intuitive of interfaces. Since Trung employs the ChemDoodle sketcher, an ideal interface would respond to drawing events (say drawing a bond or adding atoms etc) and pull up matches on the fly. Another obvious extension is to rank (or filter) the results – all the while, maintaining the near real time speed of the application.
As I said before, seriously fast substructure searches. It also helps that I can build these examples via a public REST API. I’m sure there are reasons for SOAP, XML and so on. But it’s 2011. So lets help make extensions and mashups easier.
UPDATE: Yes, it’s easy to create patterns (especially with SMARTS) that DoS the server. We have some filters for excessively generic patterns; so some queries may not behave in the expected manner