How biotech companies are using AI to design drugs

  • 2 min read
  • 4th April, 2024
  • News Mentions
  • External Writer

One way artificial intelligence promises to revolutionize health care is in the realm of drug development. Creating new treatments for diseases is an expensive, time-intensive process that typically involves lots of failure, sometimes over a decade or longer. Most drugs that appear promising in the lab never make it to pharmacy shelves.

In some ways, it’s a testament to the complexity of the human body. Once new treatments get inside us, more often than not, they fail to function as researchers expected.

Computers — even super smart ones — aren’t likely to change that, at least not yet. But they may be able to help researchers reimagine the drug discovery process and target ideas that are more likely to succeed.

That’s the hope, anyway. And many biotech and pharmaceutical companies are already diving in. They — and their investors — are betting the newest generation of AI can help unleash novel treatments for everything from COVID to cancer and chronic diseases.

For now, the promise of AI in drug development remains unproven. These systems and the humans training them have yet to put a single treatment into pharmacies, said Jen Nwankwo, CEO of 1910 Genetics, a biotech company headquartered in Boston’s Seaport District.

“We just need to put drugs on the shelves,” Nwankwo said. Until then, it's hard to know whether AI is more efficient and less expensive than traditional drug development.

“In the first iteration, it might not be cheaper than a traditional process, or it might be cheaper, but not faster," she said. "It might be faster, but not cheaper. And that's just the way technology evolves.”

1910 Genetics started in 2018 and has created an AI model aimed at developing both oral drugs and infusions. One of its first targets is a pain relief alternative to opioids.

The company, which has partnered with Microsoft, also plans to make its AI system available to other drug developers.

Nwankwo emphasized that AI will not discover drugs on its own. The process still requires plenty of work by humans. And there are significant challenges, including the fact that AI is only as good as the data people provide. There are still many gaps in our knowledge.

The first AI-assisted treatments to hit pharmacies may be a few years away, said Generate:Biomedicines’ Nally. But 2024 is shaping up to be “an important watershed moment” for the industry, said Nwankwo.

A handful of AI companies expect to report results from the second phase of clinical trials, which measure whether an experimental drug shows enough success treating disease to continue testing.

Over time, Nwankwo said she believes AI will "hit the trifecta of being better, faster, and cheaper," and it will open up new avenues to treat a wide variety of diseases.

“Because if you're a patient,” Nwankwo said, “you want every possible option in your toolbox.”

By: Elisabeth Harrison

Read the full feature here.