AstraZeneca partners with BenevolentAI to accelerate drug discovery

The collaboration aims to use AI and machine learning to discover new treatments for chronic kidney disease and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis

Pharmaceuticals giant AstraZeneca and London-based startup BenevolentAI have begun a "long term" collaboration aimed at using AI and machine learning to more quickly develop new treatments for chronic kidney disease and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

The partnership will combine AstraZeneca's research with BenevolentAI’s target identification platform and network of contextualised scientific data to investigate the mechanisms of these complex diseases and identify new drugs.

Mene Pangalos, president of R&D BioPharmaceuticals at AstraZeneca, said the collaboration would allow scientists to more effectively analyse an exponentially growing quantity of medical research data.

"By combining AstraZeneca's disease area expertise and large, diverse datasets with BenevolentAI’s leading AI and machine learning capabilities, we can unlock the potential of this wealth of data to improve our understanding of complex disease biology and identify new targets that could treat debilitating diseases," she said.

Growth of AI drug discovery

The AstraZeneca deal is the latest step on BenevolentAI's path to becoming a leader in a global healthcare AI market that Global Market Insights estimates will exceed $10 billion by 2024.

In the last two years, the startup has signed an exclusive license agreement with Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceutica for a series of clinical-stage drug candidates, discovered a drug that could delay the onset of motor neurone disease, and became the first AI company to have a Chief Medical Officer on its staff.

In 2018, it raised $115 million to scale its drug development activities, bringing its valuation to $2.1 billion and its total funding to over $200 million.

BenevolentAI is one of a growing number of AI startups trying to innovate the drug discovery and development processes. US firms Numerate, Insilico and Berg - which has its own deal with AstraZeneca - are among the leaders in the space, but there is also a key competitor closer to home, in the form of Oxford-based Exscientia.

In March, the Dundee University spin-out began a three-year AI drug discovery partnership with biopharma company Celgene focused oncology and autoimmunity, in a deal that included an initial $25 million payment. Days after announcing the partnership, Exscientia revealed that it had reached the first major milestone in its collaboration with AstraZeneca rival GSK: the discovery of a lead molecule targeting chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which affects around 384 million people globally.

Big pharma is hoping that these AI startups will help them overcome growing financial pressures. Bringing a new drug to market is time consuming and now costs about $2 billion, according to Deloitte, almost double the amount it did in 2010, and the returns on these investments are dropping as insurers and governments demand lower prices and more specialised companies emerge to produce high-value products.

AstraZeneca has therefore turned to AI to cut development costs by improving the efficiency of repetitive tasks and engendering better-informed decision. Recent financial results suggest the investment is already paying off. In February, the Anglo-Swedish company reported product sales growth for the first time since 2009.

Joanna Shields, CEO of BenevolentAI, believes the growing evidence of the value of AI drug discovery makes the deal with AstraZeneca part of a wider trend in medical research.

“Millions of people today suffer from diseases that have no effective treatment," she said. "The future of drug discovery and development lies in bridging the gap between AI, data, and biology."

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