The breakthrough claimed by Alphabet’s DeepMind in using computers to predict how proteins fold is a huge advance

The idea of revolutionising drug discovery by artificial intelligence used to be dismissed as hype. But the breakthrough claimed by Alphabet’s DeepMind in using computers to predict how proteins fold is a significant advance. The technique should help identify promising drug candidates, by making it easier to forecast how molecules will interact. Big Pharma will have to scramble to keep up.

There were signs that DeepMind was making progress on the protein-folding problem scientists have been stuck on for almost 50 years. Even so, success was thought by many experts to be decades away, according to Royal Society president Prof Venki Ramakrishnan.

Success by a company outside the industry could be embarrassing to the drugs giants. It is a symptom, said one critic, of the industry’s narrowly-focused research. But pharma companies have been stepping up their own investments in AI. UK-based GSK recently set up an AI lab in London’s King’s Cross. It, along with AstraZeneca and others, is partnering with Nvidia, which is in the process of building the UK’s most powerful supercomputer to do drugs research. 

Partnerships with AI start-ups have multiplied. This month Hong Kong-based Insilico Medicine inked a drug discovery deal with Janssen. Bayer recently backed US-based Recursion Pharmaceuticals. Bristol-Myers Squibb collaborates with UK-based Exscientia, as does AstraZeneca with UK-based BenevolentAI. Last year, Eli Lilly agreed to collaborate with California-based Atomwise, paying $1m for each AI-discovered drug. 

The commercial impact of DeepMind’s triumph is not yet clear. It says it is still thinking through how to apply its findings. Sceptics point out that AI has a history of over-promising. It did not, for instance, make as much difference as initially hoped in tackling the pandemic.

Still, the pharma industry should work on the basis that big advances are on the way. As is the case whenever the tech industry encroaches on another sector, disruption can be uncomfortable. But there are big opportunities too. Speeding up drug discovery promises to improve one of the industry’s most costly and failure-prone activities.

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