UK-based Exscientia Creates Custom Drugs for Disease Sufferers, Other Companies Starting Up

An 82-year-old man, “Paul,” who signed up for a drug trial at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria for his aggressive blood cancer was saved by an exhaustive search for the right drug through a UK company that uses AI for creating new drugs. The story in MIT’s shows how AI-created drugs are beginning to take hold as last options for desperate patients.

Two years on, Paul was in complete remission—his cancer was gone. The approach is a big change for the treatment of cancer, says Exscientia’s CEO, Andrew Hopkins: ‘The technology we have to test drugs in the clinic really does translate to real patients.’ “

Exscientia is using machine learning to design new drugs, which is expected to create more treatment options for people who have exhausted all existing drug treatments.

“The first drugs designed with the help of AI are now in clinical trials, the rigorous tests done on human volunteers to see if a treatment is safe—and really works—before regulators clear them for widespread use. Since 2021, two drugs that Exscientia developed (or co-­developed with other pharma companies) have started the process. The company is on the way to submitting two more.”

Typically, it takes pharmaceutical companies years to develop drugs and more time to gain approvals. In testing the newly designed drugs on patients out of options, Exscientia could speed up development for others. In addition, hundreds of similar companies are starting up to do the same thing as Exscientia.

“Today, on average, it takes more than 10 years and billions of dollars to develop a new drug. The vision is to use AI to make drug discovery faster and cheaper. By predicting how potential drugs might behave in the body and discarding dead-end compounds before they leave the computer, machine-learning models can cut down on the need for painstaking lab work.”

Adityo Prakash, CEO of the California-based drug company Verseon, says his company hopes to development treatments more rapidly, too.

“There are still too many diseases we can’t treat or can only treat with three-mile-long lists of side effects.”

Other companies using AI or drug development include: Generate Biomedicines, part of the startup incubator supported by Flagship Pioneering based in Cambridge, Massachusetts; AstraZeneca; Pioneering Medicines, of Flagship Pioneering in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Insilico Medicine, a drug discovery firm based in Hong Kong; Apriori Bio, another Flagship Pioneering startup based in Cambridge; and Verseon, a California-based drug company.