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AI-powered tech is key to innovation, new drug discovery

By LIU ZHIHUA | China Daily | Updated: 2022-04-18 10:11

A worker carries out sample testing in a medical company in Jiangsu province, on April 9, 2020. [Photo by Tang Dehong/for China Daily]

China is gathering momentum for an artificial intelligence-backed drug discovery boom, thanks to the nation's emphasis on innovation-driven development that has led to a continuously improving innovation ecosystem, according to industry experts and business leaders.

Insilico Medicine, an end-to-end AI-driven drug discovery company with a key research and development team based in Shanghai, announced on Feb 24 it had dosed multiple healthy volunteers in the phase-1 clinical trial to evaluate the safety of ISM001-055, the first anti-fibrotic small molecule inhibitor generated by its AI-powered drug discovery platform for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. IPF is a chronic, progressive lung disease with unknown causes.

This marks the world's first phase-1 clinical trial of a drug developed with AI technology from scratch. The novel anti-fibrotic target and the drug candidate were both discovered by Insilico using an AI platform.

A drug target is a molecule in the body, usually a protein, which is intrinsically associated with a particular disease process and could be addressed by a drug to produce a desired therapeutic effect.

The company has also nominated a preclinical candidate compound for innovative cancer immunotherapy in a collaborative project with Chinese pharmaceutical giant Fosun Pharma.

The candidate compound is a potential first-in-class small molecule inhibitor, Insilico claims.

Alex Zhavoronkov, founder and CEO of Insilico, said, "It is not a question of whether China will become a powerhouse in AI-driven drug development even though it started relatively late (in the field). The only question is when that will happen."

"China has a complete support system for startups and big-name pharmaceutical companies to make good use of AI technology to develop new drugs," he said.

A report from VBData, an industry database affiliated with online healthcare information provider Vcbeat.top, said the number of financing events and the total financing value in AI-powered drug research and development in China last year almost doubled from 2020, driven by an improved regulatory environment and growing market demand, although the report didn't reveal the exact figures.

The report said 25 AI-powered drug discovery enterprises in China had obtained new financing in 2021.

According to a report by online pharmaceutical news service Blue View, financing for AI-assisted drug discovery in China exceeded 8 billion yuan ($1.26 billion) last year.

XtalPi Inc, a Chinese AI drug miner, received more than $7 million from two rounds of financing last year, bringing its total valuation to approximately $2 billion.

Jiang Hualiang, a pharmaceutical scientist and an academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said at an industry forum in Shanghai last year that AI technology could speed up new drug discovery at various R&D stages, from discovering new drug targets and drug candidates, to candidate optimization and clinical research.

AI could also help reduce research costs and improve the success rate for new drug discovery, he added.

China has built sophisticated and advanced infrastructure over the past 20 years, which can synthesize and test any new drug designed anywhere to support drug discovery, Zhavoronkov of Insilico said.

The country has also reduced many regulatory barriers to speed up clinical trials, which makes companies in China willing to take risks for innovation and new drug development, he added.

AI-driven drug discovery companies like Insilico are injected with a new development momentum because they are expected to help biotech and pharmaceutical companies reduce risks in new drug discovery.

In December, Jiangsu Hengrui Pharmaceuticals Co Ltd, a leading pharmaceutical company in China, announced a collaboration with French AI drug design tech firm Iktos.

"Hengrui has a strong interest in exploring and utilizing enabling technologies, such as AI, to transform and accelerate the discovery of innovative medicines," said Tao Weikang, vice-president of Hengrui Pharma and CEO of R&D Centers, according to a news release.

"We are excited about the opportunity to use Iktos' proprietary AI platform to beef up our drug design and discovery capability to better address unmet clinical needs," Tao said.

Zhavoronkov also said startups like Insilico can expand R&D very quickly in China thanks to an effective network of cooperation.

The company spent about five years working with many pharmaceutical companies to build AI expertise, which made it one of the tops in the world.

Zhavoronkov said established pharmaceutical companies in China have high potential in AI-powered drug discovery as they have the core drug discovery expertise, which allows them to create better AI while they collaborate with AI companies and academic institutions such as universities.

"Drug discovery and AI capabilities together is the future," he said.

"It is very expensive to discover new drugs. Either established AI-powered drug discovery companies or biotechnological and pharmaceutical companies with drug discovery expertise using AI are those that will be successful," he added.

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