A biotech company backed by Chinese conglomerate Fosun Group and private equity giant Warburg Pincus has begun one of the first mid-stage human trials of a drug discovered and designed by artificial intelligence. Insilico Medicine, which was founded by Latvian-born scientist Alex Zhavoronkov, said it had dosed a patient in China with a novel therapy to treat the chronic lung disease idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF).
The company said the drug, INS018_055, was the first entirely “AI-discovered and AI designed” drug to begin a phase 2 clinical trial and represented an important milestone for the industry. “For Insilico, it is the moment of truth . . . but it is also a true test for AI and the entire industry should be watching,” said Zhavoronkov in an interview. “Our company, and it’s a big, bold claim, can double the productivity of pretty much every big pharma company”. Insilico is one of a new generation of biotechs, which have collectively raised billions of dollars to develop AI tools aimed at revolutionising drug development. It is part of a race by Big Pharma and investors to capitalise on a $50bn market opportunity for AI in the sector, according to a report by Morgan Stanley.
Zhavoronkov said Insilico’s AI platforms could potentially halve the time it took to discover drugs and slash the cost of bringing medicines to market — estimated by Deloitte at $2.3bn on average per therapy. Sanofi, Fosun and Johnson & Johnson were among several pharma companies that had signed partnership deals that provided access to Insilico’s technology, he said. AI platforms can crunch vast amounts of data to rapidly identify drug targets — proteins in the body associated with particular diseases — and molecules that can be made into medicines.
Several biotechs have recently announced drugs discovered or developed using AI and machine learning tools that have progressed to clinical trials, including Exscientia, Verge Genomics and Recursion Pharmaceuticals. Insilico uses generative AI to rapidly select novel drug targets and then design new molecules that can target a particular disease. Zhavoronkov said Insilico’s AI could save two to four years in pre-clinical discovery depending on the novelty and complexity of the target. It did not save a lot of time in clinical development but improved the probability of success of a drug because of better chemistry and target choice. Insilico