Artificial intelligence for new drug discovery

The world is making rapid strides in big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning. These are the core drivers of what many analysts are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution, embodied in the increasing dissolution of the boundaries that previously existed between the physical, digital, and biological worlds.

There is a clear need for pharmacists, pharmaceutical scientists and medical professionals involved in research and development in developing countries like Nigeria to increasingly tap into this world of big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning and to participate in the revolution that is taking place before our eyes .

And the reason is simple. Artificial intelligence is helping to make pharmaceutical research and new drug discovery cheaper and definitely more productive. Researchers are realizing that with AI, in the time it would have taken to manually test the potency of, say, a handful of chemical molecules, it is possible to test several hundred different chemical molecules. With AI, we can therefore develop better, safer and more affordable medicines in a much shorter timeframe.

Then there is the issue of collaboration between scientists. In such a highly interconnected world, there is no excuse for our researchers to work in silos. Pharmaceutical researchers therefore need to digitize their work to make it easier for other scientists to access such work in progress, thereby increasing the possibility of collaborating with other scientists inside and outside the country.

I am aware that there are ongoing initiatives to establish a national open access repository and research data management platform. I would like to encourage academics and researchers to reach out to the funders and become part of this project. As an academy, we will also consider collaborating with the Nigerian Association of Pharmacists and Pharmaceutical Scientists in the Americas to establish an open access platform for pharmaceutical research and data management in Nigeria. Such a centralized and easily accessible repository of research data would be invaluable for giving researchers a clear overview of ongoing research, avoiding unnecessary duplication and, as I said, facilitating collaboration. I particularly wish for a cooperation not only across national borders, but also across disciplines. As an academy, we would love to see researchers from different pharmaceutical and medical disciplines working together to discover new and better medicines to halt the spread of disease.

I’m quick to acknowledge that there are a handful of pharmacists who are already using AI to solve real-world health problems. The founder of a company called RxAll, Adebayo Alonge, has made a name for himself with his scanners that use AI to detect counterfeit drugs. Therefore, of course, his organization has not only attracted the attention of the global media, but also venture capital from offshore.

What needs to happen now is a deepening and broadening of the uptake of AI, particularly among pharmacists, pharmaceutical and allied scientists working in the critical areas of research and development.

Pharmacists, pharmaceutical scientists and medical professionals of all stripes in the developing world must refuse to be left behind in a world heavily influenced by the forces of big data, AI and machine learning. We must make a conscious effort to lay claim to this global revolution.

The obstacles are of course enormous, but we must continue to think outside the box. In fact, we have to imagine that there is no box at all.

I’m aware that AI penetration is of course hampered by the relative lack of AI expertise in those parts. But we can begin to incorporate elements of programming, machine learning, and other forms of data management into our pharmacist curriculum at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. In this way, pharmacists can begin very early to internalize the digital mindset and engage more empirically with the diverse possibilities of using digital solutions to solve real-world problems, including drug discovery.

If the experience of companies like RxAll and several successful fintech companies originating in Nigeria is anything, then the funding clearly appears to be for good and profitable causes. If we can demonstrably demonstrate our ability to harness the power of AI and machine learning to help create new and better medicines, we will attract the interest of venture capital firms and angel investors from around the world.

So let’s go back and get back to unlocking the new digital phenomena that are transforming our world.

It is not forgotten that the government has, as always, a central and crucial role to play in all of this. As an academy, we therefore also call on the government to help create the right environment that enables meaningful research. Government policies must not only help ensure that basic facilities such as clean water and electricity are available, but also be geared towards allowing AI to consciously take root and grow. For example, government can help level the playing field for all by providing free and open access to big data. It could also help attract technology incubators in the AI ​​space through incentives and subsidies.

We, both as individual scientists and as an academy, must continue to emphasize the importance of research and development to human progress and why Nigeria must not relinquish its role and responsibility in this all-important quest. While we call on government and society to live up to their responsibilities to support research and development, we as researchers must also live up to our responsibilities to participate in a burgeoning new world of possibilities opened up by AI and machine learning .

As we have seen in finance and fintech, there is significant potential for AI in pharmaceuticals, and this potential can lead not only to alleviating the pain and suffering of disease, but also to economic growth and development.

  • Adelusi-Adeluyi is a former Minister of Health and the current President of the Nigeria Academy of Pharmacy