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Can AI speed up a cure for coronavirus? This Hong Kong startup opens its resources to global drug firms for free

Insilico Medicine says pharmaceutical firms can use its AI-created compounds that are designed to work on a key “target” of the coronavirus.

Photo source: Tuchong. Photo source: Tuchong.

Insilico Medicine, a Hong Kong-based startup, has partially opened up its database of drug compounds to global pharmaceutical companies, hoping to find a cure quickly for the deadly COVID-19 disease.

The five-year-old artificial intelligence software developer last week published on its website the molecular structure of several hundred chemical compounds, which are designed to work on a key “target” of the coronavirus. It is now seeking feedback from medicinal chemists, and aims to synthesize and test up to 100 of them with partners.

“In the short term, repurposing existing molecules [drugs] originally developed for other diseases such as HIV is the right strategy since their safety profile is already known,” said Alex Zhavoronkov, co-founder and CEO.

“But those might not be the most ideal since they are designed for something else,” he added. “Our approach is more long-term, aiming for a dedicated molecule for that virus. When people learn to trust our algorithm, they will be willing to put resources on the molecules’ synthesis and tests.”

Since the highly infectious COVID-19 caught the world by surprise in January, anti-HIV, influenza drugs and even herbal Chinese medicines have been touted as potential cures. The number of infected coronavirus cases had reached more than 69,000 and claimed more than 1,660 lives, mostly in mainland China.

Zhavoronkov said it will take at least a year for an effective vaccine to be found, while it could take longer to develop drugs, even if their development is fast-tracked.

For drugs, two tracks are being pursued—antibodies derived from organisms and small molecules, the company said. The small molecules or drug compounds taken in the form of pills work by slowing the replication of a virus. And developing a new drug could take years.

Zhavoronkov, who has a doctorate in physics and a master’s degree in biotechnology, said by opening up its resources, Insilico wants to show that the algorithms it has developed can design drug compounds quickly for the next epidemic or for the current one if it persists.

It took the company four days to generate the chemical compounds which, he believes, are “not distinguishable from those designed by experienced medicinal chemists” who would require much more time.

By developing AI “imagination” and “deep reinforcement learning” capabilities, Insilico’s 85 data scientists—most of them winners of AI problem-solving competitions—in eight countries have generated new drug compounds not already known to chemists.

The four-day exercise involves using the cloud-computing power of internet giant Amazon and its own data centers in the US and Taiwan.

It plans to synthesize and test between five and ten of the drug compounds on its own. This can cost anywhere between USD 2,000 and tens of thousands of US dollars to synthesize one, and USD 10,000 to USD 15,000 to conduct laboratory tests on each, he said.

Zhavoronkov expects some nonprofit research institutes to join the R&D effort this month, including the University of Toronto. The Canadian university’s AI and quantum computing scientist Alán Aspuru-Guzik will be taking part in the study.

In September, Insilico published a research paper in Nature Biotechnology, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, on fibrosis. The research showed it could pick six novel drug compounds from thousands generated, and do preclinical tests on them as potential drug candidates for the disease that scars organs—in less than 50 days.

It has raised USD 52 million since inception from venture capital firms such as Qiming Venture Partners, Eight Roads, Lilly Asia Ventures, and Baidu Ventures.

In October, it signed a drug discovery service deal for breast cancer worth up to USD 200 million with Jiangsu Chia Tai Fenghai Pharmaceutical, a unit of CP Pharmaceutical Group. Last month, it struck a deal with Pfizer which will see the US pharmaceutical giant use Insilico’s drugs discovery technology.

Meanwhile, multiple antibodies targeting the novel coronavirus are being developed in China.

Hong Kong-listed Innovent Biologics is in “early stage” research into antibodies targeting the coronavirus, which could potentially be used if another virus from the same family emerges in the future, chief executive Michael Yu Dechao told the South China Morning Post.

WuXi Biologics, China’s largest biologic drugs development and manufacturing services provider, said on Wednesday that it has mobilized some 240 scientists to work with global firms to develop antibodies for the coronavirus. These will be ready for toxicology studies and human clinical trials next month.

“Compared with the traditional timeline of 12 to 18 months, all studies from DNA [to receiving approval to start clinical trials] could hopefully be completed in four to five months while maintaining high quality,” the Shanghai-based firm said.

This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post