Wielding the speed and power of artificial intelligence, Feixiong Cheng, PhD, set about identifying existing FDA-approved drugs that could be repurposed against COVID-19.

From start to finish, the project took 11 days — a flash compared to the 10 to 20 years it takes to develop a new drug. Dr. Cheng, a computational and systems biologist in Lerner Research Institute’s Genomic Medicine Institute, used a network medicine-based prediction model to narrow down numerous medications to 16 that showed potential against the virus.


Dr. Feixiong Cheng harnessed the power of artificial intelligence to find pharmaceutical treatments for COVID-19. | Photo: Stephen Travarca

Dr. Cheng and his team are planning to study the effectiveness of two of the identified drugs: toremifene and melatonin.

Their approach differs from traditional antiviral research, which generally targets virus proteins. Dr. Cheng and his colleagues study the entire interactome network, which includes all the protein-protein interactions that take place inside a cell, including those of human proteins. This can lead to effective drug combinations for fighting COVID-19 by synergistically blocking antiviral pathways (toremifene) and boosting human immunity (melatonin).