Year begins with bang for AI drug development

By Ben Hargreaves

- Last updated on GMT

(Image: Getty/Tampatra)
(Image: Getty/Tampatra)

Related tags AI Takeda Microsoft MIT

Alongside the first drug developed by AI entering clinical trials, there have been a number of other instances of the technology being used to aid the discovery of new treatments.

Artificial intelligence being utilized in drug discovery has hit a major milestone: the first treatment uncovered by AI to have entered clinical trials​.

The potential treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder was identified and brought to the clinical trial stage in just 12 months.

However, this piece of news was not the only one to emerge during a busy January, when various advances and partnerships were announced utilizing AI to facilitate the drug development process.

The positive news for the technology arrives after investor enthusiasm had seemed to dip in 2019​, with the levels of capital sunk into the startups in the area falling, alongside a significant drop off in the number of such companies created.

Backed by the big companies

This has not stopped the major companies seeing potential for AI in the area of health, with Microsoft creating a five-year program​, backed by $40m (€36m), to advance the prevention and treatment of disease.

The company noted that less than 5% of AI professionals are working in health, despite this being the area of ‘most urgent application’. As a result, Microsoft will work with nonprofits, academia, and research organizations to provide them access to AI technology.

The first full week of the year also saw another major company, pharma giant Takeda​, join in the push to advance research through AI.

The Japanese drugmaker teamed up with the MIT School of Engineering to use the technology to work on drug development.

In particular, Takeda will fund six to 10 research projects per year, 11 annual fellowships related to the intersection of AI and health, and create educational programs for its own employees to work with MIT’s experts on AI and machine learning technologies.

The partnership will run for an initial three-years, with the option for an extension by a further two years. The level of Takeda’s investment was not revealed.

The possibility for research

An example of the potential for researchers to generate breakthroughs in existing diseases emerged recently, with the publication of research​ by the McGill University and The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital).

The research teams used AI technology to discover molecular patterns in the blood of patients with Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease, particularly following changes in gene expression over time.

An AI-powered blood test was able to detect with 85-90% accuracy the molecular pathways linked to the diseases that the post-mortem test of the patient’s brain did.

“This test could one day be used by doctors to evaluate patients and prescribe therapies tailored to their needs,”​ says Yasser Iturria-Medina, the study’s first author and assistant professor in the department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University.

He continued, “It could also be used in clinical trials to categorize patients and better determine how experimental drugs impact their predicted disease progression.”

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