The world's leading drug companies are turning to artificial intelligence to improve the hit-and-miss business of finding new medicines, with GlaxoSmithKline unveiling a new $43 million deal in the field.
Pharmaceutical giants including Merck & Co, Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi are also exploring the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) to help streamline the drug discovery process.
The aim is to harness modern supercomputers and machine learning systems to predict how molecules will behave and how likely they are to make a useful drug, thereby saving time and money on unnecessary tests.
AI systems already play a central role in other high-tech areas such as the development of driverless cars and facial recognition software.
"Many large pharma companies are starting to realise the potential of this approach and how it can help improve efficiencies," said Andrew Hopkins, chief executive of privately owned Exscientia, which announced the new tie-up with GSK.
Hopkins, who used to work at Pfizer, said Exscientia's AI system could deliver drug candidates in roughly one-quarter of the time and at one-quarter of the cost of traditional approaches.
The Scotland-based company, which also signed a deal with Sanofi in May, is one of a growing number of start-ups on both sides of the Atlantic that are applying AI to drug research. Others include U.S. firms Berg, Numerate, twoXAR and Atomwise, as well as Britain's BenevolentAI.
"In pharma's eyes these companies are essentially digital biotechs that they can strike partnerships with and which help feed the pipeline," said Nooman Haque, head of life sciences at Silicon Valley Bank in London.
"If this technology really proves itself, you may start to see M&A with pharma, and closer integration of these AI engines into pharma R&D."