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Anne Dhulesia

Partner, L.E.K. Consulting

Stephen Roper

Partner, L.E.K. Consulting

The pharmaceutical industry is increasingly utilising artificial intelligence (AI) to bring novel treatments to market more rapidly and at a reduced cost.

AI can speed up drug discovery, reduce costs, and complete tasks more accurately and precisely than traditional methods. 

For example, an AI-powered tool can rapidly crunch through all the data ever published on the biology of a certain molecule, protein and disease or can use natural language processing, which allows a computer to read and interpret the data the same way our brains do. This can allow the rapid generation of novel insights, such as identifying a novel drug target for a previously untreated disease. 

Recently, UK-based BenevolentAI used such a tool to find a drug candidate for treating Covid-19. It discovered that an existing drug called baricitinib, indicated for other diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, could have potential in treating Covid-19; and within a year, baricitinib was validated and used to treat seriously ill patients in hospitals. 

Scientific technology leading the way forward

The potential is huge; and one trail-blazing firm — which is currently assisting its clients with taking advantage of the benefits advanced technology can bring — is L.E.K. Consulting. Stephen Roper, a partner there, says, “This is a great example of how AI can be used, because in the absence of an AI tool, and just relying on a person knowing all this information about this molecule, this would not have happened anywhere near as fast.” 

The global consultancy, established 40 years ago, works closely with small and large pharma companies as well as contract manufacturing and research companies and pure AI players. 

Overcoming hesitations and barriers

 Despite the possibilities AI offers, the relatively conservative pharma industry has traditionally proven resistant to change, albeit for good reasons. There are a number of challenges surrounding AI adoption that L.E.K. is helping their clients to overcome, such as the desire for more proof that it’s going to help reduce R&D costs. 

“If you think of a new drug cycle traditionally being 10 years from coming up with an idea to bringing that drug to market, that doesn’t allow for very fast proof points,” says Roper. “As yet, we haven’t had the first completely AI-discovered drug come to market, but we are in a phase where people are starting to see other proof points and are buying into the concept.” 

Also, collaborating more closely with competitors by sharing data is seen as a way of utilising the technology more swiftly within the sector, but this is creating hesitancy among rivals for obvious reasons. 

Strategies that work

Through developing practical and innovative strategies and plans to ultimately improve healthcare for patients and win in this dynamic market AI can be a game changer — and this is what the consultancy is focusing on. L.E.K. supports AI companies, pharma companies and investors: all of them have different perspectives on AI. Anne Dhulesia, also a partner at L.E.K, says, “At the moment, it makes sense for pharma companies to partner with AI companies because it offers an alternative to the way they have been doing research and development until now. 

“The work we do with AI companies is to help them define what business model they should adopt. There is no single answer and the solutions we offer are very tailored to the company, its capabilities and its history.” 

With both big pharma and investors recognising the value of investing in AI — along with the rapid growth of start-up tech companies in this arena — we can expect to see the industry increasingly combining its traditional approaches with the technology in the future. 

Want to hear more?

Follow this link to hear L.E.K. partners, Stephen Roper, and Anne Dhulesia, discuss AI and the future of drug discovery in their recorded webinar.

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