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September 18, 2023 AI in CT

Bioscience: Harnessing AI for drug development

Jodie Gillon

Several Connecticut biotech companies are leveraging artificial intelligence to develop new treatments for ailments — from cancer to agitation.

Jodie Gillon, president and CEO of BioCT, a statewide bioscience industry group, said AI has become crucial to the development of new pharmaceuticals.

“My personal sentiment is we can no longer develop drugs efficiently without AI now that we know how to harness it,” said Gillon, who has worked at companies such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca. “Companies that aren’t leveraging AI throughout their continuum of work are going to be slower, less efficient and less appealing to investors, and will be losing out.”

AI can help with evaluating molecules, figuring out what treatments they would be effective for, and clinical trial recruitment and enrollment, Gillon said.

Getting the necessary steps done to bring a drug to market in a faster and less expensive way is ultimately “the whole lifeline of a company,” Gillon added.

Brad Parry

Guilford-based AI Therapeutics is using AI to understand relationships between drugs and diseases to drive its clinical pipeline, according to Chief Technology Officer Brad Parry.

CEO Brigette Roberts said the company is focused on three therapeutic areas: neuroscience, respiratory ailments and oncology.

Brigette Roberts

The company is developing potential treatments for ailments such as Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), pulmonary arterial hypertension and various cancers, among others.

“There’s a lot of work that’s going on in AI that’s helping academics and others understand how genetic pathways work and how diseases work,” Parry said.

AI is also helping researchers and companies better understand the potential impact of a drug as it relates to specific diseases, he said. AI can help connect disease and potential treatments, whittling down the number of candidates for biopharmaceutical companies to pursue.

It can also help identify new uses for existing therapeutics.

“AI is going to allow us to enter disease markets that have huge unmet needs,” Parry said.

Sitting on the sidelines

New Haven-based biopharmaceutical company BioXcel Therapeutics Inc. uses artificial intelligence to develop medicines in neuroscience and immuno-oncology.

Using that method, BioXcel has brought to market the drug Igalmi, a film dissolved under the tongue to treat agitation related to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The company is currently developing treatments for agitation in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.

Frank Yocca, chief scientific officer at BioXcel, said AI can help get a drug or treatment to patients faster.

Frank Yocca

BioXcel uses AI to evaluate late-stage drugs that have proven to be safe, but weren’t effective in treating a particular disease, to determine if they have other uses.

“We use our extensive AI talent to dig into those types of drugs and see if we can’t redirect them to a different (disease),” Yocca said. “It’s a drug just sitting on the sideline — and there are many.”

Drugs that have made it to phase two clinical trials but not to market could be valued at up to $150 million, according to Yocca.

He estimates there could be 1,000 to 2,000 drugs in this category, which can potentially be repurposed. While big pharmaceutical companies may lose interest in drugs that failed to make it to market, bioscience companies like BioXcel see potential, Yocca said.

“We try to see if we can redirect this molecule into a different space,” Yocca said.

By doing so, the company can skip early discovery and safety stages of drug development, saving money.

Talent pipeline

Dr. Jens Rueter, chief medical officer for The Jackson Laboratory, which has a Farmington campus, said the genomic research institute uses AI for big data analysis and healthcare research.

Jens Rueter

Its research teams focus on a variety of areas, such as cancer, immunology and autoimmune diseases, neuroscience and neurodegenerative diseases, life cycle biology and the microbiome.

AI and machine learning can help the medical community identify the most relevant treatment options for patients.

“I think (AI) can play a significant role (in the future of health care),” Rueter said. “Especially in areas where you have a lot of data that’s being utilized to perform a single decision. I think that’s where AI is going to come in handy.”

For complicated diseases such as cancer, with complex genetics, using AI has significant potential, notes Rueter.

As the use of AI continues to grow, Gillon foresees bioscience companies having difficulty finding workers who have this training.

“I think the challenge is going to be having enough talent in this space and recruiting them to Connecticut,” Gillon said. “Finding top-rated, machine-learning scientists, they’re a needle in a haystack now. We have to be able to lure them to Connecticut in droves. From BioCT’s perspective, that is going to be where we’re focused.”

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