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Novartis empowers scientists with AI to speed the discovery and development of breakthrough medicines



By: Bill Briggs


Here’s a cooking story unlike any you’ve heard before. That’s because the chefs are chemists, the ingredients are molecules, and the main course is a new medication designed to defeat illness.

At least, that’s Luca Finelli’s snackable description to explain in simple terms how scientists at Novartis are searching for breakthrough medicines powered by artificial intelligence (AI), part of a collaboration with Microsoft to get medicines to patients faster.

But that recipe hinges on the scientists’ ability to predict which blend of molecules can be transformed into medicines – a tedious process that traditionally takes decades and can cost billions.

“Creating the formulation to a drug is a bit like cooking,” says Finelli, vice president and head of insights, strategy and design at Novartis, a multinational pharmaceutical company headquartered in Basel, Switzerland.

“Typically, the formulation scientist needs to decide, ‘I will take this amount of this ingredient A and some amount of this ingredient B.’ They then try different combinations,” Finelli adds.


Each molecular combo must next be tested to gauge efficacy, stability, safety and more. Conducting those experiments can span years. And most promising drug candidates fail somewhere during that long journey.

But by leveraging the power of AI in collaboration with Microsoft, Novartis researchers may be able to shorten that process to weeks or even days.

How? Tools that use AI can sift quickly through stores of data and results from decades of laboratory experiments and suggest molecules with the desired characteristics that are optimized for the medicinal task at hand. Those drug leads might then be fast-tracked for additional testing and, if proven safe and effective, potentially be developed and manufactured as a remedy for illness. This AI-bolstered process could cut out years of trial-and-error experimenting with molecules that are less than ideal.

In fact, that functionality already has been “integrated into the decision-support system in front of our medicinal chemists,” says Shahram Ebadollahi, chief data and AI officer at Novartis.


The potential human impacts are vast, Ebadollahi says.