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Moving at the speed of light: How new technology is acting as a catalyst for rapid drug discovery


By Ray Chohan, Co-Founder and VP new ventures at innovation intelligence expert Patsnap, discusses why the widespread adoption of machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain is transforming the life sciences sector.

The past 12 months have seen a monumental global effort to fast-track the development of a suite of market-ready COVID-19 vaccinations. With numerous organisations from across the healthcare supply chain involved, the pace and scale of this achievement has surprised and excited many industry observers.

Clearly, the concept of rapid drug development and personalised medicine is not new. However, the global pharma industry’s ability to sequence the DNA of the Coronavirus in just three days was astonishing – and marks a defining watershed for the life sciences sector. The dream to create effective therapeutics and vaccines to combat a wide range of other diseases could soon become a reality.

We’ve proven beyond doubt that what used to take years to deliver, in terms of drug efficacy and trials, can now be done in under a tenth of that time. Granted, the political will to find effective vaccines to combat the global pandemic was unprecedented, but the adoption of novel technologies and practices to ‘telescope’ previously time and cost consuming processes along the drug development path should not be underrated.

From our own experience working with global pharma businesses involved in the successful development of COVID vaccines, the adoption of AI and machine learning can be clearly measured. Take, for example, the previously labour-intensive area of early stage drug discovery.

Just a couple of years ago, this phase of molecular investigation would entail many hours of research, sifting through published data, field trials and research documents looking for relevant information. Unearthing a clinical study that supported your initial findings was like finding a needle in a haystack.

What used to take anywhere between six and nine months can now be done in just 20 minutes, using our proprietary software that collates data from thousands of sources and presents it as usable management information. It’s this scale of automation that is the prime driving force behind the new revolution in drug development.

While the pharma sector is now largely on board with the adoption of this type of catalytic technology, it has only been in the past year or so – since the outbreak of COVID-19 – that the medium cap and large corporations have all put technology investment at the top of their budget lists. A recent survey* by Pistoia Alliance (which represents most big pharma companies on the east coast of the USA) points to the fact that AI, machine learning and Blockchain will be the prime areas for investment over the next 12 months. Moreover, this market sentiment is echoed in the fact that Patsnap recently raised $300m for future development of its AI-driven R&D and IP analytics capability.

The next decade is all about open collaboration. In our work with pharma businesses, we have seen how our platform has created a bridge between the ‘drug development’ and ‘business development’ departments. What was often previously a chasm has now been filled – using valuable information to create a shared dialogue. In our experience, poor internal communication has been one of the significant brakes on faster drug development – and it is hugely encouraging to see new technologies like ours enabling genuine collaboration between bench-level folks, marketing folks and c-suite managers.

Looking ahead to 2030, I foresee pharma and biotech companies becoming much more like software companies. In fact, we’re already seeing that shift, which is incredibly exciting. Indeed, major pharma corporations are assessing the benefits of the ‘Apple’ effect, which drove so much software development back in the 90s.

Then the Corporation (under Steve Jobs) opened up its IP, allowing smaller businesses to use their apps to develop and deliver their products. Granted, they took a cut of the income, but this ‘open access’ strategy enabled countless businesses to thrive.

The same model will emerge in biotech and pharma in the coming years. We are standing at the edge of an era, the like of which we have never previously seen. Coronavirus has been one of the world’s most serious pandemics – however it has acted as a catalyst to change that will finally bring about tailored drugs, personalised medicine and reduced side effects to people across the globe.

Patsnap is a London based business that specialises in the development of AI-driven R&D and IP analytics. It specialises in the global life sciences sector and counts GW Pharmaceutical, Arbor Biotechnologies and Erytech Parma among its clients.

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