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October 31, 2018

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Artificial intelligenceassists drug research

Artificial intelligence is playing a key role in new drug development and smart medical treatment by capturing, analyzing and activating data.

It’s a category of AI often underestimated by the public, even though it influences the health of millions of people.

China, as well as the Asia-Pacific region, is regarded as fertile ground for technology firms working with drug developers, providing artificial intelligence and cloud services.

It’s a booming realm due to aging populations, large investment inflows, unmet medical needs, regulatory reforms and local pharmaceutical companies with global expansion ambitions. For example, US-based Medidata, the biggest software firm in the life sciences industry, has 357 clients in the Asia Pacific, or about one-third of total client numbers.

The time is ripe for information technology and life science industries to converge in efforts to provide better and targeted treatment for patients — not only in cases like cancer and strokes but also for maladies like headaches.

The technology chain includes cloud computing to store and spread data, sensors with the Internet of Things to capture data, algorithms to analyze and “clean” data, and gene research to offer precise and targeted data.

The data provide new impetus to the digital transformation of industries, executives from information technology, pharmaceutical, consulting and investment firms told a recent NEXT forum hosted by New York-listed Medidata. Representatives from Amazon, Novartis, McKinsey and Accenture, as well as Chinese drugmakers, attended the gathering.

Previously, data from clinical trials were reported and recorded on printout sheets or even by manual typing, while decision-making was based on human experience or manual coding. All that limited data quality and slowed the approval rate for new drugs, industry officials said.

To avoid “garbage in, garbage out” situations from misused or low-quality data, artificial intelligence systems require high quality data, which can be standardized and integrated for the right algorithm to produce useful results, said Glen De Vries, president of Medidata, whose clients include 18 of the top 25 pharmaceutical firms and a growing number of smaller firms.

The new cloud and AI-driven technologies solve key problems that dogged traditional methods, such as a regulatory approval rate of less than 10 percent for new drugs and an average cost of US$2.6 billion for the development of a new drug. Trials periods can stretch over a decade.

Scientists pair data with algorithms to produce results and predict effects with continually improving accuracy for drugmakers. That helps them to speed up research and the process of obtaining marketing approval from government regulatory agencies.

By 2022, 40 percent of the top 100 pharmaceutical firms will have established a digital platform for research and development, according to IT consulting firm Gartner.

This year, health data produced by wearables, sensors and other devices will surpass the sum total of all previous years. Connected health devices, from Apple Watch and Fitbit to the world’s first digital (in-body) pill, offer high-quality data in the digital health market, officials from Accenture and other firms told the NEXT forum.

Meanwhile, Big Data promises to transform how outcomes are measured and delivered in the digitalized world, said Sastry Chilukuri, a partner of McKinsey.

It’s a “golden time” for the life sciences industry as AI-driven businesses bring more high-quality data, with a “closed loop of data,” like what Netflix and Amazon did in their industries, according to David Lee, chief data officer of Medidata.

The Chinese domestic health care market and its AI companies will play an important role in the digital transformation. Medidata has earmarked China as a “growth engine” with new clients like TigerMed and KBP Biosciences, Fosun Pharma, BeiGene and Wuxi Clinical Development Service.

“Actually, there are only a few choices for global-standardized electronic data capture and AI services for pharma firms, especially those with overseas business,” an official of China-based KBP Biosciences, which has overseas facilities in the US and European cities, told Shanghai Daily.

KBP, founded in the city of Jinan, secured US$76 million in financing earlier this year. The company has developed a medicinal chemistry platform and team to identify and advance products addressing unmet medical needs in cardiovascular, infectious disease and respiratory ailments care.

Biotechnology is one of the most popular venture capital realms in China, which makes related companies capital-ready for new technologies like cloud computing and artificial intelligence.

In 2017, the private equity funds of Chinese startups raised nearly US$40 billion, with US$12 billion going to the health care industry. That was double the figure in 2016, according to McKinsey.

Another incentive for use of artificial intelligence technology in drug development is regulatory reform.

The China Food and Drug Administration has undertaken steps to hasten drug review and improve timelines for new drug applications.

By the end of 2017, the agency employed more than 800 reviewers, compared with just 70 in 2015.

Domestic drugmakers are investing heavily in AI to take advantage of a shorter timelines. Chinese regulatory approval is moving to dovetail with systems in the US and Europe, which require drug developers to adopt advanced systems on data capture and analysis, said the KBP official.


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