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AI must be top priority to protect Britain in a post-pandemic world

13 August 2021

Boosting the pharmaceutical industry’s AI capabilities could help more than 400 million patients globally, according to a new report released by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).

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Shutterstock image

During the past 12 months, AI has played a fundamental role in helping nations across the world tackle COVID-19. It enabled scientists to rapidly identify drugs that could be repurposed to treat the virus, including dexamethasone; the anti-inflammatory that played a vital role during the peak of the pandemic by significantly reducing risk of death in hospitalised patients.

The IET is calling on government to take urgent action and invest in machine learning to help tackle other national and global health challenges and futureproof our healthcare system. From rare forms of lung disease such as Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency, to uncommon fungal infections like Zygomycosis, AI streamlines early research and facilitates treatment breakthroughs which could help millions of patients globally.

Five recommendations

The IET’s new report shares five recommendations of ways in which the UK government can boost the use of AI in drug discovery, which will make specialised drugs readily available to the public in a faster and cheaper way.

1. Set up a Global Data Warehouse to support drug development for infectious diseases. The virtual storehouse would contain secure open-source biomedical data and electronic health records, and should be headed by a data czar responsible for setting data standards and guidelines for patient anonymity.
2. Establish the first National Institute for AI and Drug Discovery – a first for governments, to lead on development of machine learning technologies for pharmaceuticals.
3. Launch high-profile competitions with large “cash for equity” prizes for discovery of new drugs for incurable diseases to incentivise start-ups to take part, inspired by the British government’s £10 million Longitude Prize.
4. Set up a volunteer National AI Corps of data scientists to tackle urgent drug development issues in future pandemics.
5. Create a Pandemic World Bank to finance research into new antibiotics and other unprofitable drugs for infectious diseases. This project would be led by government alongside the World Health Organisation to help cement the UK’s position as a global leader in life sciences.

New challenges for a new Health Secretary

As England welcomes its new Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, the IET sees an opportunity for innovation and a fresh approach to healthcare.

Nury Moreira, IET Healthcare Lead says: “This past year has pushed England’s national healthcare system to breaking point. Health Secretary, Sajid Javid faces a multitude of problems that demand resolution - from the NHS backlog, that now sees waiting lists of over 5 million, to preparing Britain for the Winter months and flu season ahead. Adoption of new cutting-edge technologies, like AI, will provide the government with the power to reverse this, and Build Back Better for the NHS and the public.”

An opportunity for innovation

The report shows that despite rapid and positive growth in this space, there are still few drugs to date that have completed the full development pathway, after being initially identified using AI.

There are currently some 7,000 rare diseases, which affect more than 400 million people worldwide. However, only 5% have approved treatments, leaving an estimated 380 million people vulnerable.

Professor Peter Bannister, IET Healthcare Sector Executive Chair says: “Rare diseases pose unique challenges to society and healthcare systems. Due to the limited number of patients available for clinical trials, traditional methods of drug discovery in this space are often rendered too costly, too slow, and simply not economically viable for pharmaceutical companies.”

“In England, it’s estimated that rare diseases have cost the NHS at least £3.4bn, with that number expected to rise in the wake of COVID. AI promises a faster and cheaper avenue of innovation that could ease the strain on the NHS by millions of pounds per patient – through faster diagnosis, new drug development, vaccine breakthroughs and data discoveries.”

Following the Prime Minister’s recent promise to cement Britain as a “science superpower” the IET is calling on government to futureproof the NHS and prioritise the adoption of AI across the healthcare system.

Find out more about machine learning and the future of drug development via the IET’s new report, ‘Artificial intelligence for drug discovery’:

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