Novartis and Microsoft Partnership: Artificial Intelligence in New Drug Development

By Andrea Flores Esparza

Throughout history there has been numerous advances in our understanding of the physiology of human beings, enabling the establishment of diagnostic procedures for various diseases and the development of potential treatments and cures. However, despite the significant medicinal discoveries, there is still an enormous ambiguity remaining in this field due to the complexity of the human body. Being an organism composed of roughly 37.2 trillion cells in which each of those cells has approximately 42 million protein molecules – excluding the non-protein molecules – accentuates the challenge involved in the research and development of preventive/healing treatments (Barth, U. 2017; University of Toronto, 2018).

In our modern world, technology takes part in the majority of our daily lives. The expansion and development of computing has impacted many industries in one way or another. The pharmaceutical industry is no exception to this; as technology advances have been rapidly developed, these have not only improved the development and manufacturing of medications but has also benefited the interpretation of large sets of data. A well-known case study to exemplify this being the 20th century Human Genome Project (HGP), an international scheme that successfully screened and mapped out the entire human genome with the aim to improve our understanding of the human genetic material (Genome.gov, n.d.). Arguably, there are still ways in which the tech industry could benefit the pharmaceutical industry. With overlapping mission statements, two of the world’s leading companies in each of these sectors came together in 2019 to undergo an exciting partnership; Microsoft and Novartis will combine their proficiencies to work collaboratively in what is known as the “Artificial Intelligence (AI) Innovation Lab” (Novartis, 2019). 

Each of the CEOs of Microsoft and Novartis, Satya Nadella and Vas Narasimhan respectively, addressed the public in videos to announce the upcoming partnership (Novartis, 2019). The idea surged from the CEOs’ desire to combine these two industries in order to accelerate the discovery and design of new medicines. Quoting Nadella’s video, “[healthcare] is perhaps AI’s most pressing application”, highlighting the beneficial consequences of introducing AI not only to the research and development of treatments, but also the manufacturing and distribution of these. According to Narasimhan, this innovative AI lab will combine the “best in tech with the best in life sciences” to tackle healthcare-related problems that our world is facing today. The overall goal of this partnership is to form a mutualistic relationship between AI and drug development. 

Novartis then published a set of projects that have been recognised by both companies. One of the sub-goals from this collaboration includes the empowerment of AI not only in data science experts, but all across both companies’ associates to deepen their skills and support their work towards the combating of public health challenges (Novartis, n.d.). The second project that was stated by the pharmaceutical company is the establishment of an “Intelligent Molecular Design”. This project intends to use AI to distinguish the more efficient molecules by not only screening a wide range of molecules but also build them. AI in this context will effectively detect desired patterns based on an extensive biochemical knowledge, allowing scientists to focus their time in more efficient molecules (Novartis, n.d.). Thirdly, the AI Innovation Lab has been used in the oncology sector to further develop what is currently known as CAR T-cell therapy. This cancer treatment alters the patient’s T-cells into personalised cancer-fighting T-cells that are able to breakdown oncogenic cells and thus lead to the removal of malignant tumours (Dana-farber.org, n.d.). However, the cost for a CAR T-cell therapy – being around £280,000 per patient – is one major obstacles for this specialised, followed by the fact that it may be challenging to effectively alter the individual’s T-cells (Sim, D., 2018). For this reason, Novartis and Microsoft are joining efforts and expertise to optimise this cancer treatment. Lastly, these two companies have also decided to focus on the age-related macular degeneration (AMD) (Novartis, n.d.). AMD is a disease that onsets between the age of 50 and 60, causing an irreversible loss in patient’s central vision (Nei.nih.gov, 2020). The AI aims to create models for each of the patients in order to create a personalised treatment that includes a dosing plans that will guide both clinicians and patients (Novartis, n.d.). If these goals are successfully accomplished, the knowledge generated throughout the completion of these will allow data and life science experts to address other diseases. 

This contemporary collaborative project will most definitely become a remarkable partnership in years’ time as it will portray the beneficial outcomes of the combination of expertise in the solving of issues facing humanity. By having two leading companies merge forces together to work towards increasing the livelihood of society with regards to health gives hope that drug development will be improved in such way that preventative and curative treatment will be delivered more efficiently as well as refining diagnosis. If this is accomplished, Microsoft and Novartis would have productively incorporated the knowledge and expertise from the tech industry with those from life sciences in order to significantly benefit humanity. 

References:

 Barth, U. How Many Cells Are In Your Body? Probably More Than You Think!. October 2017. [online] Handling-solutions.eppendorf.com. Available at: <https://handling-solutions.eppendorf.com/cell-handling/about-cells-and-culture/detailview/news/how-many-cells-are-in-your-body-probably-more-than-you-think/&gt; [Accessed 22 October 2020].

Dana-farber.org. Frequently Asked Questions About CAR T-Cell Therapy – Dana-Farber Cancer Institute | Boston, MA. n.d.[online] Available at: <https://www.dana-farber.org/cellular-therapies-program/car-t-cell-therapy/faq-about-car-t-cell-therapy/&gt; [Accessed 22 October 2020].

Genome.gov. What Is The Human Genome Project?. . n.d. [online] Available at: <https://www.genome.gov/human-genome-project/What&gt; [Accessed 22 October 2020].

Nadella, S. Satya Nadella announces strategic collaboration with Novartis. 2019. Directed by Microsoft. YouTube. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMfsQE-D2q4&feature=emb_title&gt; [Accessed 22 October 2020].

Nei.nih.gov. Age-Related Macular Degeneration | National Eye Institute. August 2020. [online] Available at: <https://www.nei.nih.gov/learn-about-eye-health/eye-conditions-and-diseases/age-related-macular-degeneration&gt; [Accessed 22 October 2020].

Novartis. Novartis And Microsoft Announce Collaboration To Transform Medicine With Artificial Intelligence | Novartis. October 2019 [online] Available at: <https://www.novartis.com/news/novartis-and-microsoft-announce-collaboration-transform-medicine-artificial-intelligence&gt; [Accessed 22 October 2020].

Novartis.  AI Innovation Lab | Novartis. n.d. [online] Available at: <https://www.novartis.com/our-focus/data-and-digital/artificial-intelligence/ai-innovation-lab&gt; [Accessed 22 October 2020].

Sim, D. ‘Cutting Edge’ CAR T Cell Immunotherapy Approved In England. But Is The NHS Ready? -Cancer Research UK – Science Blog. October 2018 [online] Cancer Research UK – Science blog. Available at: <https://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2018/10/05/cutting-edge-car-t-cell-immunotherapy-approved-in-england-but-is-the-nhs-ready/&gt; [Accessed 22 October 2020].

University of Toronto. “A cell holds 42 million protein molecules, scientists reveal.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, January 2018. [online] <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180117131202.htm>.[Accessed 22 October 2020].

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