Heard on the pipeline: AI in R&D

As has become tradition in the pharma and biotech world, 2024 kicked off with a bang as experts from around the globe gathered in San Francisco for the 42nd annual JP Morgan Health Conference. The event gave attendees a chance to scope out the landscape of innovations, trends, and challenges for the upcoming year. And so, with pharmaphorum editor-in-chief Jonah Comstock reporting from the floor, it seemed the perfect setting to find out how attendees view one of the hottest topics in healthcare today.

How has the mindset within the industry evolved regarding the acceptance and adoption of AI technologies in R&D?

Jen Nwankwo

CEO, 1910 Genetics

“Last year was certainly the year of AI, fuelled by ChatGPT, which OpenAI and Microsoft launched in November 2022. I think that launch brought AI to the consciousness of the layman. People who hadn’t heard about AI, people like my mum, people at the grocery store had the opportunity to play with ChatGPT, a consumer-facing conversational AI interface. It really captured the imagination and continues to capture the imagination with the opportunity to do a variety of things and just this idea that there’s this sort of friend that you’ve got in the form of ChatGPT that you can ask questions and get answers to.

“The release of ChatGPT brought AI into the consciousness of the average American. For those of us who are in what you’d call a verticalised solution space, which means we are using AI to build solutions in a specific vertical like biotech and pharma, we certainly are excited to see AI in the mainstream consciousness, but for us not a lot has changed, both in terms of the immense opportunity for AI to improve R&D productivity in pharma, which has declined consistently since the 1950s, as well as some of the barriers that have prevented AI from delivering on its potential in pharma and biotech. So, we’re excited to see everybody coming along for the ride and just forging ahead with trying to bring the potential of this tool and this incredibly powerful technology to fruition in the form of actual medicines for patients.”

Katherine Stueland

CEO, GeneDx

“It’s rapidly impacting the way that we’re conducting our business, both in terms of how we are scaling our interpretation platform, how we’re taking the knowledge base that we have and insuring that, at scale, we’re able to deliver the highest confidence level results. But we’re also looking at how it applies to business operations. An important element of access for patients is making sure patients have insurance coverage and that we can then actually have a smooth billing process. So, AI can actually help inform the way we are able to procure medical necessity documents that support a claim that may be going to a payer. I think there’s a whole host of ways we are today deploying AI and will continue to deploy AI from a clinical perspective, from a scientific perspective, but also just in terms of the nuts and bolts of how we operate the business day to day.”

Simon Arkell

CEO and co-founder, Ryght

“One thing we’ve never heard anyone say is ‘You know this AI thing, I’m not interested.’ Everyone’s interested. The question is, for a company that’s in the business of selling SaaS software to help solve problems in the industry, what are the problems that have a cheque book attached to them? Where do you have a painkiller and not a vitamin? Last year there was just a lot of playing around. There were pilot budgets available with some of the bigger companies and just a lot of intrigue and playing around with it themselves in the smaller companies.

“But we’re now seeing that companies have failed at doing it themselves because they realised how much complexity was involved on the backend, and we’re seeing that they’re coming to us and saying why don’t we just get the initial application live, start seeing value, and then grow from there. So, we’re seeing real traction now, but it’s been five or six months of people just dipping a toe in the water. Where we’re really going to start seeing value is when there’s true, demonstrable ROI and then the industry will start to pick up.”

Gene Kinney

CEO, Prothena

“Certainly, there are a number of companies that have started around AI technology in terms of target selection, thinking about how to better model and approach the way we select targets and target biology; how we might model what certain proteins do when they go awry and when they start to become aberrant in the context of disease. I think that that’s an important understanding of things we can leverage in our understanding of how normal biology becomes abnormal.

“But I think, on an operational level, of course AI can be very helpful just in terms of keeping the operational wheels spinning in a more efficient way. Incorporating that in a responsible way into an organisation, thinking about databases, collating data, making sense of certain data sets that are rich in information are also important ways one can incorporate AI into your normal everyday work life.”

Trevor Martin

Founder and CEO, Mammoth Biosciences

“Things always go through some cycles. First, it’s like ‘What is this?’, then, it’s this race to find different applications. And now I think we’re getting to the part of the cycle that’s most exciting to us, because I think it’s what matters the most, which is, what does this actually make a difference in? You don’t just want to slap AI on different things. How are you going to use it that’s actually going to make a difference for building a drug, for finding patients, whatever it is, but what is the AI actually going to enable that wouldn’t be possible without it? For example, for us for the last decade leveraging these new AI techniques to find and characterise new CRISPR systems, seeing which work and which don’t, and getting better and better at it over time.”

About the author

Jonah Comstock 

Jonah Comstock is a veteran health tech and digital health reporter. In addition to covering the industry for nearly a decade through articles and podcasts, he is also an oft-seen face at digital health events and on digital health Twitter.


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