The WHO states that cancer is a “leading cause of death worldwide”. It accounted for nearly 1 in 6 deaths in 2020; that’s almost 10 million. Each year millions of pounds are pumped into cancer research across the world, yet deaths are likely to increase over the next 20 years because of ageing populations.  

Although increasing numbers is an unhappy prospect, we can take comfort in the increased financial and intellectual investment into technology against cancer. One area hoping to tackle understanding and drug development is artificial intelligence, said Pharmaphorum contributor Ben Hargreaves. He predicts that the potential AI offers will lead to an increase in companies emerging in the space, with “a greater number of collaborations occurring between these AI-specialists and big pharma”.  

Hargreaves identifies Owkin, a medical AI company founded in 2016, which is focusing on cancer. A recent partnership with the Francis Crick Institute and The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust will enable Owkin to research kidney cancer.  

“The aim is to help doctors provide more effective treatments to patients, as cases of kidney cancer continue to increase”. 

We can expect to see exciting developments from this partnership, as failing treatments can be influenced by “intratumour heterogeneity”. Using histology slides to predict tumour evolution, Owkin hopes to predict outcomes in each patient so that treatment can be tailored.  

However, Owkin’s tools are not limited to treating cancer. Hargreaves reports that it can “interpret histogenomic biomarkers to discover and rank genes and proteins with drug target potential”. This would be exciting news for the industry, which currently faces a drug development failure rate of 96%.  

Owkin has partnered with bigger companies such as Sanofi and Bristol Myers Squibb. Another company that has recently forged a deal with Sanofi is Exscientia. CEO Dr Andrew Hopkins suggests that using AI in drug design has dramatically reduced the pipeline duration. Comparing traditional approaches, taking between 4 and 5 years, to AI approaches, which take “only 12 to 15 months”, there is a clear winner.  

As Hargreaves suggests, the potential within the AI field will attract the attention of investors, hopefully accelerating advances in drug development. For cancer treatment and wider drug research, putting AI to work promises to pay off.  

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