How AI is fully automating drug discovery

The pharmaceutical industry has struggled to cure major and common diseases despite billions of dollars of investment. Tanja Dowe, CEO at Debiopharm Innovation Fund, the strategic investment arm of the Switzerland-based drug developer, says that the industry has failed to adopt alternative and innovative techniques like simulation and modelling that have come to play a significant role in other industries.

Generative AI, the technology recently popularised by ChatGPT has the potential to change the drug discovery game. Traditional drug discovery involves chemists screening for a new molecule that should be novel, patentable, highly active on a selected biological target, and highly selective. The process is not only costly but extremely time-consuming with each attempt taking six to eight weeks or more and costing thousands of dollars which in turn limits the number of experiments which are run.AI can model these processes faster and cheaper by allowing researchers to examine many more molecules than would be possible in the lab. European companies using AI for medical research have raised over $2bn over the past decade, but delivery has fallen short. Pharma needs to truly embrace AI and utilise it for the full drug discovery process, rather than just in minor sub sections.

Iktos Robotics is an end-to-end drug discovery platform to synthesise and test molecules through automation. The French drug discovery start up, has designed a molecular generator that produces a virtual design of molecules and then tests them virtually through predictive models. Generative AI improves molecule design, and the model repeats until it finds molecules with very good probabilities of meeting the required criteria. To overcome the limitations of predictive models, Iktos has developed an AI tool for designing new molecules alongside an effective, fast, and cheap method to complete synthesis.

By lowering costs and time, AI drug discovery platforms could encourage biotech and pharmaceutical companies to tackle a broader range of diseases rather than only those with the most favourable addressable market. According to Dowe, over the last decade, the return on investment from drug development has fallen by an estimated 80%. The need to recoup huge R&D costs, in turn, leads to underinvestment in diseases with smaller population sizes or that mainly affect those in low-income countries.

While AI drug discovery start-ups have become a major trend, large pharmaceutical companies often struggle to tap into this ecosystem as it’s at an early stage and highly speculative. Debiopharm, as both a drug development company and a strategic investor, is uniquely positioned to spot and nurture innovative start-ups, preparing them for the pharmaceutical industry’s requirements.


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