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Artificial Intelligence at the Heart of China’s New Drug Discovery

It’s not much of a surprise to find Artificial Intelligence (AI) playing a central role in the pharmaceutical industry. Chinese firms are relying on AI to put more drugs on the market, and by extrapolation extend better services.

The country is gathering momentum for an artificial intelligence-backed drug discovery boom. All thanks to the nation’s emphasis on innovation-driven development, these companies are going through a continuously improving innovation ecosystem, according to industry experts and business leaders.

“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.” said an Industry Leader in AI-based Drug Discovery.

For instance, an end-to-end AI-driven drug discovery company with a key research and development team based in Shanghai, announced last February how AI has become central in its methodology. 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). To note, IPF is a chronic, progressive lung disease with unknown causes.

It’s groundbreaking as 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 a Chinese pharmaceutical giant.

A report from an industry database affiliated with a leading online healthcare information provider 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. This is driven by an improved regulatory environment and growing market demand. However, 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. Another report stated that financing for AI-assisted drug discovery in China exceeded 8 billion yuan (US$ 1.26 billion) last year.

The advantages of using AI in drug discovery are many. Experts detail how AI technology could speed up new drug discovery at various R&D stages, from discovering new drug targets and drug candidates, to candidate optimisation and clinical research. Even better, AI could also help reduce research costs and improve the success rate of new drug discoveries, they added.

China’s infrastructure provides a key role in these AI-driven companies. The country has built sophisticated and advanced infrastructure over the past 20 years, which can synthesise and test any new drug designed anywhere to support drug discovery. Even better, 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.

As a result, AI-driven drug discovery companies are injected with a new development momentum because they are expected to help biotech and pharmaceutical companies reduce risks in new drug discovery. Experts believe that as expensive as new drug development is, only those biotechnological and pharmaceutical companies that harness AI would succeed.

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