Artificial intelligence in drug development

From communication to travel, AI has revolutionised so much of what we experience in our daily lives. When many think about AI, they may think of social media or self-driving cars, yet one of the most impacted areas is the healthcare industry. According to a McKingsey & Company article written in 2020, countries including Germany, China, USA, Israel and many more, are investing in medical, AI-related research. Additionally, at Harvard University’s teaching hospital, doctors are using AI to identify harmful bacteria in blood with 95% accuracy. There is and will be a colossal advance all over the healthcare system, however in this article I will specifically discuss AI’s impacts on drug development. Whilst it’s often overlooked, tens of thousands of candidate drugs are not licensed. The cost of investigation and development to take new drugs to the public in the UK, on average, costs around £1.3 billion and can take decades. Here is where AI will metamorphose the industry. Artificial Intelligence has the incredible power to decrease cost, increase accuracy and reduce time spent developing a certain drug.


Firstly, AI can design more accurate drug molecules by predicting the structure of the target protein (a protein that when directed by the drug, will produce the expected response). In order to create a successful drug, there must be a correct target for the treatment. Many proteins are included in the growth of the disease; however, sometimes, too many copies are made. Therefore, it is necessary to predict the structure of the target protein to make the drug. Developed by Google’s DeepMind, AlphaFold is an AI program which can analyse the distance between amino acids and the corresponding angles of peptide bonds to predict the 3D structure of the target protein. On the Global Distance Test, AlphaFold scored a median of 92.4% accuracy of calculating the placement of the atoms. This level of accuracy is not flawless however, as this program has only been around for five years. With more time, research and resources, AlphaFold and softwares like it will be able to create a new beginning for drug discovery.


As mentioned, very few drug candidates that reach clinical trials advance from the first four phases- less than 10%. Drug candidates that are able to become a product take over a decade to reach that stage. Although, the use of AI guarantees to reduce the timeline. The software company based in South Korea, Standigm, uses AI for drug discovery. Standigm uses lead optimisation (designing a drug candidate process), drug repurposing (finding alternative purposes) and, like AlphaFold, target discovery. With these tools, Standigm can progress from target proteins to new drug designs in a minimal amount of time. In July 2021, Pavilion Capital invested $10 million into Standigm, which will give the company the ability to be competitive in the global market. Standigm is collaborating with iCLUE&ASK and DarkMolFactory, two other AI software companies, which helps them make speedy breakthroughs in the process of drug development.

This final paragraph will explain how AI will reduce the excruciating costs of drug development. According to an article written in 2018 by Gunjan Bhardwaj, the CEO of AI company Innoplexus, drug research and development preoccupies 20% of all pharmaceutical revenues in the USA. One of the main aspects that make drug development expensive, is the high risk factor. Founded just seven years ago, Insilico Medicine, a Hong Kong based Biotechnology company, uses AI to reduce the cost of the development and research of their drugs. Insilico Medicine claims that by utilising AI in drug development, you can produce much more data through experiments per pound. As referenced in the first paragraph, AI is extremely accurate. With this level of accuracy, the risk rate of failure is reduced and therefore the research that is used in drug development companies like Insilico Medicine, is incredibly more cost effective.

In conclusion, it is evident that AI is transforming the drug development industry already. Prospering pharmaceutical companies involved in AI like AlphaFold and Standigm have only been founded in the last decade, it is still very early days. The Global Artificial Intelligence Market is projected to increase by 903.5% by 2026. AI has the potential to upgrade the pharmaceutical industry forever.

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