[Ip-health] FT: Novartis and Microsoft join forces to develop drugs using AI

Thiru Balasubramaniam thiru at keionline.org
Thu Oct 3 03:50:14 PDT 2019


Novartis and Microsoft join forces to develop drugs using AI
Five-year agreement is one of the most expansive tie-ups between big pharma
and big tech

The Microsoft-Novartis partnership will initially focus on tackling macular
degeneration, as well as cell and gene therapy and drug design

Sarah Neville and Richard Waters
OCTOBER 1 2019

Novartis and Microsoft are joining forces to apply artificial intelligence
to some of the most intractable problems in healthcare, in one of the most
expansive tie-ups so far between big pharma and big tech.

Under one part of the five-year agreement, which will be reviewed annually,
Microsoft will work on new tools intended to make it easier to apply AI to
all areas of the Swiss pharmaceutical company’s business, from finance to

A second part of the work will focus on using deep learning — the technique
that has brought the biggest recent advances in AI — to improve the speed
and precision with which it develops new medicines.

Vas Narasimhan, Novartis chief executive, suggested that AI could hold
particular promise in the field of personalised medicine, helping to
identify subgroups of patients most likely to benefit from new treatments.

The pharma industry, initially slow to recognise the potential of digital
technologies, has been picking up the pace in recent years, with companies
ranging from GlaxoSmithKline to Sanofi exploring how big data can
accelerate R&D.

Novartis grasped the possibilities earlier than many of its rivals and Mr
Narasimhan, who took the helm almost two years ago, has set an ambition to
turn it into a data science company. He said it had pooled its internal
information into three large data “lakes”, overcoming the barriers that
often make it hard to combine different data sets, and employs about 800
data scientists and bio-statisticians.

Mr Narasimhan said he hoped the collaboration with Microsoft would set his
company apart from rivals. “My aspiration is to lead in the space,” he
said, laying out a vision in which AI would power research, development,
manufacturing, finance, sales and marketing and procurement. “If we can
scale the technology across the value chain of the company, that will, I
hope, lead to a significant differentiation over time.”

The companies will initially focus on three areas: tackling personalised
therapies for the eye disease macular degeneration; cell and gene therapy;
and drug design.

Joint research will take place at the Novartis campus in Switzerland and
the company’s global service centre in Dublin. It will also involve
Microsoft’s research labs in Cambridge under Christopher Bishop, one of the
UK’s foremost machine learning experts.

The cost of discovering and commercialising a new drug has barely shifted
in decades, taking an average of 14 years and costing up to $2.5bn.

Setting a three-year timescale within which the collaboration would start
to show “tangible impact” across the business, Mr Narasimhan said: “I hope
. . . we can make bringing down the costs of drug discovery and drug
development a reality.”

He added: “We believe that by applying AI methods to our large clinical and
pre-clinical data sets, we should be able to identify the
‘super-responding’ patient populations, or patient populations that
uniquely respond to different medicines, which then could lead to further

In the future this could generate more personalised medicines and allow
Novartis to build “a better value proposition to healthcare systems”, he

Thiru Balasubramaniam
Geneva Representative
Knowledge Ecology International
41 22 791 6727
thiru at keionline.org

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