Digital: AI and ML in Pharma Development Digital Transformation is Enhancing Pharmaceutical Innovation in BaselHow are digital innovations such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) helping to improve drug research and development?

By Frank Kumli at Basel Area Business & Innovation

Digital technologies – such as artificial intelligence (AI), natural language processing and data analytics – are revolutionising healthcare by helping medical professionals to make better, more informed decisions, as well as by accelerating the discovery of new therapies.

These advancements promise to propel healthcare into the future and make the seemingly impossible possible, including everything from optimising patient care through robust data analytics, to aiding the discovery of complex disease patterns through AI algorithms. This article features some examples of digital technology, which are supporting pharmaceutical R&D in the innovative science hub that is the Basel area, Switzerland, and describes how these latest developments will play a major role in the ever-changing healthcare landscape.

New Platforms for Drug Discovery

The pharma industry continues to be driven by the need to refresh pipelines, identify new targets, design new drug molecules and find new biomarkers for successful clinical development. With the days of ‘low-hanging fruit’ and serendipitous drug discovery in the past, new platforms are required to provide data-based solutions in R&D. AI, ML and other digital technologies can allow companies to benefit from large datasets that have been captured in recent years, including drug molecule libraries, genomic data, patient health records and medical imaging data. These different platforms have applications across the drug discovery and development process. Some enhance existing computational library screening efforts to identify drug-like molecules with very specific properties that would not be found with traditional methods; others highlight biomarkers of disease progression in electronic health records, feeding into both target discovery and clinical trial design. By tapping into the huge quantities of data that are now available, pharma companies can develop new drugs quicker and with an improved chance of success. Recent research suggests that even modest improvements in early-stage drug development success rates enabled by AI and machine learning (ML) could lead to an additional 50 novel therapies over a ten year period, translating to more than $50bn in opportunities.1

Partnering for Innovation

Much of the innovation in this field has been driven by AI-native companies offering products or services through partnerships or software licensing deals that can then be applied to pharma pipelines. The move from traditional service and software models to the use of asset and pipeline development partnerships has led to soaring investment. Figures show that third-party investment in AI-enabled drug discovery has more than doubled annually for the last five years, topping $2.4bn in 2020 and reaching more than $5.2bn at the end of 2021.2

Health Tech Boom in Basel

One area where this synergy between digital technology and pharmaceutical R&D is making waves is the Swiss city of Basel, where a leading European innovation hub has grown to be the home of over 700 companies across the biotechnology, digital health, medical technology, chemistry and advanced manufacturing sectors. This includes pharmaceutical giants such as Roche, Novartis, Johnson & Johnson and Boehringer Ingelheim. Companies continue to flock to the Basel area to take advantage of the world-class academic institutions and local talent pool of over 31,000 life sciences professionals, as well as the network of big pharma juxtaposed with scale-ups and start-ups. Amongst the most recent arrivals are health tech companies looking to support R&D in the big pharma arena. For these companies, a presence in the region provides the perfect opportunity for meeting, networking and developing new relationships that are crucial for further innovation. Several companies are making the most of the thriving tech culture, supporting initiatives for health tech start-ups and dedicated innovation and co-working spaces, to drive success in the Basel area.
Discovering Complex Disease Patterns

Examples of the work being performed include:
  • Associating multimodal single-cell datasets (RNA-/TCR-/ BCR-seq, proteomics, etc) with clinical endpoints – such as disease diagnosis, progression, severity, treatment and toxicity response – to identify ultra-sensitive biomarker signatures and cell functionality states
  • A research engine that introduces a new standard of interpretability and explainability to life sciences datasets using simple models and straightforward mathematical expressions to help pharma companies bring drugs to market faster
  • AI-powered analytics and digital solutions to support improvements in behavioural health, delivering rich, high-quality and relevant real-world evidence information to healthcare providers, patients, researchers, payors and regulators by analysing electronic health record data with analytics. This data helps providers recognise disease progression and provide tailored treatments to their patients, and aids pharmaceutical companies in improving drug discovery and development.

The Future of Digital Innovation in Pharma

The applications above are classic examples of how digital technologies can make use of the vast quantities of data that are being generated in healthcare and pharmaceutical R&D.
Their innovative products and services are allowing new insights and a deeper understanding of complex processes – including disease progression, drug mechanisms of action and clinical effectiveness of new drug candidates – and they are improving the drug development process. The platforms themselves are driving a paradigm shift that could enhance the process of drug discovery, bringing new drugs to market more quickly, and reducing the large numbers of candidates that are currently lost along the development pathway. Strong partnerships between technology and pharma companies, academic institutions and hospitals, such as those being developed in Basel, are undoubtedly helping to revolutionise the future of healthcare.

  1. Morgan Stanley Research (2022), ‘Putting the ‘Tech’ in Biotech: Assessing the Potential for AI in Drug Development’
  2. Boston Consulting Group (2022), ‘Adopting AI in Drug Discovery’
Frank Kumli is the head of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Basel Area Business & Innovation. He has decades of experience in commercial innovation, focusing on developing and implementing novel business models for pharma and healthcare companies. Frank completed his PhD in organic chemistry at Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, and was a postdoctoral fellow at Colorado State University, US.