With promises that AI could shave valuable time off the drug discovery process, replace animals in pharmaceutical testing and increase global industry revenue by 3% to 5%, 2023 is the year pharma began to realize the true value in AI.
“When you’re talking about something that normally takes 12 months, if we can even reduce that by half or by 75%, that’s pretty significant,” Shweta Maniar, global director of healthcare and life sciences at Google Cloud, told PharmaVoice earlier this year. “And multiply that by how many different targets we’re looking at.”
The year also marked an AI milestone when the Hong Kong-based biotech Insilico Medicine dosed the first patients in a phase 2 clinical trial for what it called the “first entirely AI-discovered and AI-designed” drug.
As the AI market heats up with some of the world’s biggest tech and pharma leaders, here are five pharma investments that illustrate how the industry is leveraging AI’s emerging capabilities.
The objective: Going “all-in” on AI and data science
The investment: In a move to become what CEO Paul Hudson called, “the first pharma company powered by artificial intelligence at scale,” the French pharma giant rolled out its own AI app, plai, earlier this year. Developed with AI platform company Aily Labs, Sanofi said plai aggregates the company’s internal data from across all of its activities and functions.
Already, Sanofi says it’s using AI to accelerate mRNA research and is using plai in particular to find clinical trial sites that will allow for more participation among historically underrepresented communities.
It’s just one of Sanofi’s AI-focused moves in the past two years. In 2022, Sanofi acquired the AI-enabled company Amunix Pharmaceuticals and before that, announced partnerships with several other companies for AI-related projects.
Alexion, AstraZeneca Rare Disease
The objective: Target identification for rare neurodegenerative and neuromuscular diseases
The investment: In a deal that could be worth up to $840 million, AstraZeneca’s Alexion will work with Verge Genomics to identify drug targets for rare neurodegenerative and neuromuscular diseases. Under the four-year, multi-target deal, the companies will use machine learning to comb Verge’s genomic datasets, which are derived from human tissue, rather than cell or animal models.
Verge said it has already used the platform to identify novel therapeutic targets for its lead program in ALS. Verge also counts Eli Lilly and Merck Global Health Innovation Fund among its investors.
The objective: Target identification for cancer
The investment: Boehringer Ingelheim is partnering with Phenomic AI in a potentially $509 million deal, including $9 million upfront, to use AI and machine learning to discover stroma-rich cancer targets.
Using Phenomic’s platform, the companies plan to analyze single-cell RNA datasets to identify novel therapeutic targets. Under the agreement, Boehringer Ingelheim will have the option to license targets that Phenomic discovers and functionally validates. Boehringer Ingelheim will also be responsible for developing and commercializing any therapies that come out of the deal.
The day after announcing the Boehringer Ingelheim partnership, Phenomic pulled back the curtain on another pharma collaboration with Astellas for solid tumor target identification.
The objective: Target and lead identification
The investment: Pfizer is among the early adopters of Google Cloud’s Target and Lead Identification Suite, one of two AI-powered drug discovery tools the tech titan launched earlier this year. Pfizer’s not alone. Several other companies and organizations, including Colossal Biosciences, are already using Google’s AI tools.
Although the specifics of Pfizer’s work with Google weren’t included in the announcement, Pfizer isn’t new to the AI game. It says it used AI to speed the development of the COVID-19 treatment Paxlovid.
The objective: Funding generative-AI driven clinical trials
The investment: Novartis has become the latest investor in generative AI company Yseop, which automates study documents and is now involved in more than 150 clinical trials globally. Novartis joins existing investors such as Eli Lilly.
Yseop aims to automate the entire document process, from preclinical trials through FDA approval. According to the company, in 2023 alone, Yseop generated more than 10,000 reports and eliminated tens of thousands of hours of writing and review time for documents such as the clinical study report and patient narrative.