Looking to solve public health crises through discovery, Gates Foundation taps AI firm Exscientia to look for answers
Despite astronomical advances in medicine over the past few decades, public health has continued to confound researchers, particularly in developing nations. Could AI help crack the code on cheap and effective drug discovery for public health? A Gates-backed AI firm is looking to find out.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded UK-based AI outfit Exscientia a $4.2 million grant to help identify existing therapies and new molecules that could be used to tackle public health crises, including malaria and tuberculosis as well as maternal and infant mortality through contraceptives.
Exscientia will use its proprietary “Centaur” platform to both scour existing data for therapies that could be used in one of those target areas as well start at the gene level to find and develop novel compounds, CEO Andrew Hopkins told Endpoints News. The team got the name for its Centaur algorithms from chess Grand Master Garry Kasparov, who pioneered a form of the game called “centaur chess,” which married human and machine learning to outwit solely AI chess players.
The Gates Foundation struck up a conversation with Exscientia as it looked for new ways to drive discovery for underfunded public health needs in an industry typically constrained by the high cost of drug development. Hopkins argued that AI could play a major role in “democratizing” the process of drug discovery and development and potentially speed up the process of bringing those medicines and novel compounds into the clinic much faster than the science and human brains alone currently allow.
“We are making drug discovery far more efficient,” Hopkins said. “If we can discover projects far more rapidly and spend less on the discovery phase, we can think more about how we can bring more projects forward and investigate them.”
Part of Exscientia’s goal will be looking for bispecific molecules that can hit multiple targets at once, Hopkins said. Doing so would give each of the company’s identified drugs a double whammy, of sorts — and reduce the need to develop two separate therapies concurrently.
Exscientia was founded back in 2012 and was the first AI firm to be working in the drug discovery and development space at the genomic scale, Hopkins said. Since then, the field has blown up with many potential players touting their robot braintrusts and the possibly revolutionary effects on the biopharma industry.
For Hopkins, the Gates partnership will provide another real-world data point for the applicability of AI in discovery as well as potentially drawing a new path forward in which therapies can bust through the 10- to 15-year idea-to-market life cycle.
“If we can think about how we can reduce the speed of discovery, we can think about how we can go after more innovative targets,” Hopkins said. “Our mission is to solve drug discovery, which would allow us to then think about how we can expand the universe of commercial innovations.”