July 19, 2024
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Biotech firms turn to AI for more efficiency


Artificial intelligence has been the key discussion in the technology space for the past few years — mainly focusing on how it can help optimize software-as-a-service firms across various industries from finance to real estate.

But one of the key things AI does so well is its ability to automate repetitive tasks, process large datasets more quickly than humans, and handle complex computations — all things that help companies in the drug discovery business.

As such, the biotechnology industry has taken note and AI has begun playing a role in helping those firms find breakthrough treatments.

“If you had asked me 10 years ago about the role of AI in drug discovery, I probably would have said it’s minimal, that I will always trust a good chemist with a good set of hands and intuition and a great biologist over what can be done with AI,” Managing Director at Westlake Village BioPartners David Allison told the Business Times.

“But what we’ve learned in the last 10 years, in particular, is this merging, of technology, drug development, biology, chemistry, high throughput screening can be made far more efficient with a greater data set than any individual scientists can do on their own.”

Westlake Village BioPartners is a venture capital firm focused on biotechnology startups in the Conejo Valley and the rest of greater Los Angeles. 

It has raised $1.3 billion since its founding in September 2018, including the launch of its third fund worth $450 million in July 2023.

Allison said that in advance of its annual meeting last year, Westlake surveyed its portfolio companies.

The results? 

Over half of the companies are using AI in some way, shape or form in the drug discovery process.

That isn’t because Westlake is looking to invest in biotech companies using AI, it is just where the industry is going.

“As we make other investments in the next two years or so, I would be surprised if most of those companies don’t somehow touch AI,” Allison said.

“A human can only do so much with a simple literature search with the known information out there, but if you’re actually able to comb through and use a lot more of that data to better inform patient selection, better inform clinical study design, all those things, I think we will ultimately deliver better medicines to the patient.”

Allison said where AI really helps in the drug discovery process — especially in the last few years, he said — is not necessarily trusting automation has all the answers, but rather giving chemists and biologists AI techniques to make better decisions in the drug discovery process. 

“I think it’s making us more efficient, more effective. I am not sure yet that it’s translating into better drugs, but I am confident that ultimately that is where we’re headed,” Allison said.

AI is not just playing a big role for biotech startups, however, it also is playing a critical role at one of the largest biotech companies in the world — Thousand Oaks-based Amgen.

“We anticipate a significant role for AI,” an Amgen spokesperson told the Business Times.

“We are in the era of shifting rapidly from a world dominated by a ‘find and test’ in the lab approach to drug discovery to a ‘model and design’ approach, leveraging methods including Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) to rapidly screen targets and design safe, effective and well-behaved new molecules that can be validated in the lab potentially leading to faster cycle times and the promise of increased success rates.​”

Amgen has been investing for more than a decade to build early research capabilities in drug design and large multi-omic data sets.

“(That has improved) both our ability to design therapeutic proteins that can achieve a desired effect in the human body and our ability to understand disease biology at a fundamental level,” the company spokesperson said.

“We built that foundation confident that it would eventually be turbocharged by new science.”

The spokesperson added that in protein drug development at Amgen, AI or machine learning has cut antibody discovery times in half and reduced protein engineering and optimization timelines by more than 70%.​

“We are using ML predictive analytics to interpret molecular/omics and deidentified phenotypic/real-world data to better understand disease and find drug targets​. deCODE genetics, a wholly owned subsidiary of Amgen is using ML algorithms to interpret population-scale omics data,” the spokesperson said.

In October of last year, Amgen closed its deal to acquire Horizon Therapeutics, a biotech firm that was particularly focused on finding treatments that address critical needs for people impacted by rare, autoimmune and severe inflammatory diseases.

As such, after the deal closed, Amgen launched a new portfolio under its treatments, one focused on treatments for rare diseases.

In December, Amgen then promoted Dr. David M. Reese to a new role as its inaugural executive vice president and chief technology officer, responsible for “accelerating the use of technology and artificial intelligence across all facets of the company, as well as for the company’s Global Medical organization.”

Reese was previously the executive vice president, of Research and Development from 2018 to 2023.

“These emerging technologies have offered a tremendous opportunity to reconceive how we organize and operate many areas of our business, with multiple AI-driven initiatives already running across the enterprise with exciting impact,” Amgen said.

Another area where AI can help not just biotech but the healthcare industry as a whole is cutting costs.

In biotech, especially startups, the process of finding a treatment and getting it to market could take a decade, meaning that for a long time, companies are burning money before ever turning a profit.

So, saving money is important, especially for biotech startups. But the goal isn’t using AI to replace jobs, as is the concern of some people, but rather, Allison said, to again help make the process of drug discovery more efficient.

“It’s not about cutting jobs. And, it’s hard to put a specific number (on how AI could save on costs), but I think healthcare is a massive industry and it is ready for efficiency and I think AI is going to be a really important tool in that move towards efficiency, that will benefit everyone,” Allison said.

email: jmercado@pacbiztimes.com