Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Microsoft, Novartis Team on AI-based Therapies 

Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis is teaming with Microsoft on a medical AI effort aimed at developing new data-driven techniques for drug discovery and development of specific therapies.

The multi-year alliance announced this week would establish an AI innovation lab the drug maker would use to uncover new drug designs, cell and gene therapies as well as “personalized” therapies for macular degeneration.

The partners said their collaboration would seek to connect the drug maker’s broad data sets with Microsoft’s AI technologies with the goal of creating new AI models and drug and therapy applications.

Among the areas to be explored are computational-intensive life sciences projects ranging from generative chemistry to scaling cell and gene therapies, the partners said Tuesday (Oct. 1).

Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and Novartis (NYSE: NVS) also said they would collaborate on development next-generation AI platforms to support broader utilization of the technology across the drug maker’s operations. Along with an undisclosed funding commitment, the AI effort includes technology, tools and subject-matter experts.

Joint research facilities will be located at the main Novartis campus in Basel, its Global Service Center in Dublin, Ireland, and at Microsoft Research Lab in the U.K.

“Pairing our deep knowledge of human biology and medicine with Microsoft’s leading expertise in AI could transform the way we discover and develop medicines,” Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan said in announcing the AI partnership.

The collaboration will “take advantage of advanced Microsoft AI technology combined with Novartis’ deep life sciences expertise to find new ways to address the challenges underlying every phase of drug development – including research, clinical trials, manufacturing, operations and finance,” Peter Lee, Microsoft Healthcare’s corporate vice president, added in a blog post.

Other efforts to blend AI with drug discovery have so far fallen short. In April, for example, IBM (NYSE: IBM) ended sales of its Watson AI software used by pharmaceutical firms for new drug discovery.

In response to reports, IBM said at the time it remained “committed to its continued success for our clients currently using the technology. We are focusing our resources within Watson Health to double down on the adjacent field of clinical development where we see an even greater market need for our data and AI capabilities.”

Nevertheless, a healthcare executive told Datanami  "cynicism is growing in healthcare about the applicability of AI [and machine learning] to solve clinical diagnostic problems.”

Novartis and Microsoft may have taken the lesson, narrowing their AI efforts to specific applications like “personalized” therapies rather than broad drug discovery efforts. Those initiatives often require years of clinical trials and a complex drug approval process before they hit the market.


About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 30 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as executive editor of Electronic Engineering Times. Leopold is the author of "Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom" (Purdue University Press, 2016).

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