Alphabet is launching a company that uses AI for drug discovery

Technology

A new Alphabet company will use artificial intelligence methods for drug discovery, Google’s parent company announced Thursday. It’ll build off of the work done by DeepMind, another Alphabet subsidiary that has done groundbreaking work using AI to predict the structure of proteins.

The new company, called Isomorphic Laboratories, will leverage that success to build tools that can help identify new pharmaceuticals. DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis will also serve as the CEO for Isomorphic, but the two companies will stay separate and collaborate occasionally, a spokesperson said.

For years, experts have pointed to AI as a way to make it faster and cheaper to find new medications to treat various conditions. AI could help scan through databases of potential molecules to find some that best fit a particular biological target, for example, or to fine-tune proposed compounds. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in companies building AI tools over the past two years.

Isomorphic will try to build models that can predict how drugs will interact with the body, Hassabis told Stat News. It could leverage DeepMind’s work on protein structure to figure out how multiple proteins might interact with each other. The company may not develop its own drugs but instead sell its models. It will focus on developing partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, a spokesperson said in a statement to The Verge.

Developing and testing drugs, though, could be a steeper challenge than figuring out protein structure. For example, even if two proteins have structures that fit together physically, it’s hard to tell how well they’ll actually stick. A drug candidate that looks promising based on how it works at a chemical level also might not always work when it’s given to an animal or a person. Over 90 percent of drugs that make it to a clinical trial end up not working, as chemist and writer Derek Lowe pointed out in Science this summer. Most of the problems aren’t because there was something wrong at the molecular level.

The work done at DeepMind and the proposed work at Isomorphic could help bust through some research bottlenecks but aren’t a quick fix for the the countless challenges of drug development. “The laborious, resource-draining work of doing the biochemistry and biological evaluation of, for example, drug functions” will remain, as Helen Walden, a professor of structural biology at the University of Glasgow.