GlaxoSmithKline signs $43m deal with AI start-up

Scottish AI start-up Exscientia has signed a lucrative deal with a second pharmaceutical giant, as the benefits of artificial intelligence in drug research become apparent

  • By Rachel Connolly | Monday, July 3rd, 2017

AI is able to discount ineffective molecules far more quickly than previous methods

In evidence of the growing interest in using artificial intelligence (AI) as a means to speed up drug development, only July 2, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) unveiled a new $43m deal with Scotland-based AI start-up Exscientia.

In a statement discussing the deal, Andrew Hopkins, CEO of Exscientia said: “This alliance provides further validation of our AI-driven platform and its potential to accelerate the discovery of novel, high-quality drug candidates.”

Interest in AI start-ups from big pharmaceutical companies has heated up as the application of relatively new software techniques to narrow down the list of potential candidate molecules for new drugs becomes apparent. Accordingly, this is the second such deal Exscientia has signed in recent months, having partnered with Sanofi in May.

Until recently, pharmaceutical research has relied on software that checks if any molecules fit a drug profile written by chemists

AI cuts down the initial process of selecting molecules to take through further trial stages by using algorithms trained to sift through huge masses of data detailing the chemical profiles of molecules, and develop rules detailing the profile of a molecule that may make a suitable drug.

Until recently, pharmaceutical research has relied on software that checks if any molecules fit a drug profile written by chemists, or has used simulations to predict useful structures. Now, techniques such as deep learning use algorithms trained on massive data sets to develop their own sets of rules that evolve as more data is added.

This new type of drug discovery has been made possible by rapid improvements in the sophistication of machine learning techniques, but also by the collection of genetic information on a level not previously possible, creating banks of data for use as training sets.

Hopkins said in his statement that using these methods had allowed Exscientia to reduce the time taken to find molecules to take to further trial stages to around a quarter of the time, for a quarter of the cost, compared to traditional methods.

In a statement discussing the partnership, John Baldoni, Senior Vice President at GSK, said he hoped the partnership would “accelerate the discovery of new molecules against high value GSK targets with speed and without compromising quality”.

Big pharmaceutical companies are following in the footsteps of AI start-ups, who have recently woken up to the potential uses of their software as a drug detection tool, other start-ups working in this field include Deep Genomics, UK firm Benevolent AI, and Calico, an Alphabet subsidiary.

Under the deal, Exscientia will receive research funding from GSK to undertake drug-finding missions for 10 ‘target’ diseases, with the full £33m ($43m) amount paid on successful delivery of preclinical drug candidates for all 10 targets.