Artificial intelligence has the potential to disrupt almost any industry. Pharmaceutical giants continued to take note. From AI in drug discovery to digital therapies, major life science companies have invested time and money in the space.
However, the big tech companies move fast and don’t always break the mindset in line with pharma’s regulated model. Today, a number of accelerators and labs are trying to bring together technologists, scientists, and venture and life science companies early to work on some of the biggest problems in biotech.
Aion Labs from Israel focuses on the use of AI in pharma. Founded in 2021, it is is currently taking applications from computational biologists, bioinformaticians, AI researchers and other scientists for its third challenge, to result in the creation of a new AI-focused platform designed to aid pharmaceutical research. The lab partners with major pharmaceutical companies, such as AstraZeneca, Merck, Pfizer, Israel Biotech Fund and Teva Pharmaceuticals, as well as tech company Amazon Web Services.
“Merck and the other partners are very interested in new biological entities, namely many constructs based on antibody design,” said Noga Yerushalmi, iInvestment Director at Merck’s M Ventures, told MobiHealthNews.
“And until today, to produce an antibody, to become a therapeutic drug, you had to go through some phases that were biological… The first set of proposals in Aion Labs actually created the ecosystem to come up with solutions who can do this the whole process is completely computational, so from the structure.
“This 3D structure of your target can computationally design a molecule, and then we can synthesize it and try it, and see if it works. But the ability to do that comes with a lot of data from previous structural analysis and previous antibody designs that’s been done, and we can provide this company with a lot of data, as well as advances in some computational tools that currently allow computer modeling of almost any protein.”
The program takes finalists to a five-day bootcamp in Rehovot, Israel, and pairs them with teammates. The winning team of scientists will receive mentorship from pharmaceutical, technology and venture capital firms during a fully funded incubation period of up to four years.
Today, there are many challenges in using artificial intelligence to drive life sciences research.
“One of the challenges is organizing the data. We are talking about a lot of data that we can certainly deliver”, Jerusalem said. “Not every pharmaceutical company standardizes a way of collecting data. You have to arrange it like that to collect it, or to filter it. There is therefore a lot of work on the data itself to enable the use of this data.
“We need a lot of innovation or talent to look at and build those solutions. We know AI can power those things, but every challenge requires a whole new algorithm to enable those AI tools to reach the target, to achieve the desired goal.”
However, Aion Labs presents its model as a way to help alleviate these challenges and bring people from multiple industries together from the get-go.
“There are all these roadblocks. We have to remove these roadblocks. And the way we decided to do that is we said, ‘We have to do this together. We have to work together.’ The pharmaceutical companies need to work together to tackle the data issues, then AWS needs to be there as a technology infrastructure partner to say, ‘Okay, we need to protect the data, protect the privacy’” dr. Yair Benita, CTO of Aion Labs, said: MobiHealthNews†
“We still need to give them access to all the tools. We need access to funding. We need innovation engines, all of them. We try to package everything in such a way that [we’re] actually bring [together] people who are brilliant and can just solve the problem on the scientific side.”
The lab also brings together competitors across the field.
†[There] are four pharmaceutical companies in this picture, and it’s not trivial that we work together. We are kind of competitors. But to come under the same roof and find out that we’re actually facing the same challenges, and wanting to generate tools together that can help us all, is really something special.”
Aion Labs is based in Israel and is funded by the Israeli government. Benita said Israel is a ripe place for innovation for a few key reasons.
“It’s very entrepreneurial in spirit. But I think it also has to do with the fact that Israel is relatively small and very connected. For example, Noga knew all her colleagues from Pfizer, AZ and the US Teva before Aion Labs was founded, so people know each other.
“It’s very digitized. And you could also see, because of COVID, the deployment of vaccines, analyzing the data, collecting the data, Israel was [advanced]† That’s because everything fits together really nicely, and that gives a very strong added value.”
Aion Labs is not the only program that aims to bring together stakeholders from life science, tech and venture. Digital health veteran Naomi Fried and pharmaceutical director Laura Gunn founded PharmStars in 2021, with a focus on educating health technology companies and pharma to work together.