Oncology is a major focus for AI drug discovery companies

The application of artificial intelligence (AI) in the drug discovery process is promising to drastically cut down timelines and costs of bringing new therapies to patients. The potential for AI to address these pain points has drawn significant attention from investors and players in the pharmaceutical industry. 

Typically, the development of a drug costs companies more than $1 billion, in a process that spans up to 10-15 years. Moreover, the drug development process is very risky – up to 90% of drugs being developed do not reach commercialisation. IDTechEx have recently published the report “AI in Drug Discovery 2021: Players, Technologies, and Applications”, which covers this topic in detail.  

In this report, IDTechEx analyses 25 AI drug discovery companies (out of 100 total companies identified) that are actively developing drug candidates and have published detailed information on their drug development pipeline. 

IDTechEx found that (excluding undisclosed assets) up to 47% of the drug development pipeline across the 25 AI drug discovery companies focused on the treatment of cancer and its side effects. Within the AI drug discovery landscape, several companies, such as Erasca, Relay Therapeutics, and Turbine AI, focus entirely on the development of cancer therapies. 

While several companies do not disclose specific indications at which they are targeting their drug candidates, IDTechEx found that the field was generally fragmented. Only three diseases were of interest to more than five AI drug discovery companies – glioblastoma multiforme, colorectal cancer, and non-small-cell lung carcinoma (NSCLC). The unifying theme is that these are hard-to-treat cancers. For example, glioblastoma multiforme is an aggressive form of brain tumour with less than 5% of patients surviving more than five years after their diagnosis. 

Beyond oncology, IDTechEx found the landscape fragmented, with neurology (including neurodegenerative diseases) and inflammatory diseases to be of particular focus by AI drug discovery companies. These commanded 13% and 12% respectively of drug candidates identified. 

Within neurology and neurodegenerative disorders, IDTechEx identified amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as motor neurone disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease, of particular focus for AI drug discovery companies. There is currently no cure for ALS. Other rare diseases with high unmet need include non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), and inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis. 

Several AI drug discovery companies, such as SOM Biotech, focus specifically on rare (orphan) diseases. Governments around the world provide significant support and incentives for the development of drugs for orphan diseases, helping small AI drug discovery companies overcome key drug development hurdles. 

For the most part, IDTechEx found that AI drug discovery companies are still in the early stages of drug development. Out of the companies analysed, IDTechEx found that over 50% of disclosed drug candidates are still in the discovery phase, and 31% in the preclinical phase. Within this group of companies, IDTechEx found the range of drug candidates in the pipeline to be between one and 25. This is in stark contrast to Atomwise, which has over 500 projects in development. 

Image credit: National Cancer Institute

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