Artificial intelligence for new drug discovery
The world is making rapid progress in the fields of big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning. These are the core drivers of what many analysts have referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, personified by the increasing blurring of the boundaries that have existed until now between the physical, digital and biological worlds.
There is a clear need for pharmacists, pharmaceutical scientists and medical professionals in the field of research and development in developing countries like Nigeria to increasingly tap into this world of big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning and participate in the revolution that before our own eyes.
And the reason is simple. Artificial intelligence is helping to make pharmaceutical research and discovery of new drugs cheaper and certainly more productive. Researchers realize that in the time it would take to test the effectiveness of, say, a handful of chemical molecules by hand, with AI, it is possible to test several hundred different chemical molecules. With AI we can therefore create better, safer and more affordable medicines, also within a much shorter time frame.
Then there is the issue of collaboration between scientists. In a world that has become so intricately networked, there is no longer any excuse for us researchers to work in silos. Pharmaceutical researchers must therefore digitize their work to facilitate access by other scientists to such work in progress and thus improve the possibility of collaboration with fellow 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 want to encourage academics and researchers to seek out the promoters and be part of this project. As an academy, we will also look at collaborating with the Nigerian Association of Pharmacists and Pharmaceutical Scientists of the Americas to set up an open-access pharmaceutical research repository and data management platform in Nigeria. Such a centralized and readily accessible repository of research data would be invaluable in enabling researchers to have a clear view of ongoing research, limit unnecessary duplication of effort and, as I said earlier, facilitate collaboration. I would be particularly keen to see collaboration not only across national borders, but also across disciplines. It would be our pleasure as an academy to see researchers in diverse pharmaceutical and medical disciplines working together to discover new and better drugs to halt the march of disease and illness.
I want to quickly admit that there are a handful of pharmacists who are already deploying AI to solve real health challenges. The founder of a company called RxAll, Adebayo Alonge, has made a name for himself with his scanners that detect fake drugs, using the power of AI. His organization therefore naturally attracted not only global media attention, but also venture capital from overseas.
What needs to happen now is for the penetration of AI to deepen and widen, especially among pharmacists, pharmaceuticals and related scientists working in the critical areas of research and development.
Pharmacists, pharmaceutical scientists and indeed medical professionals of all stripes in the developing world must refuse to be left behind in a world formidably affected by the powers of big data, AI and machine learning. We must make a conscious effort to stake a claim on this global revolution.
The obstacles are formidable, of course, but we must continue to think outside the box. Indeed, we must imagine that there is no box.
I realize that the penetration of AI will naturally be hampered by the relative scarcity of AI expertise in these parts. But we can start looking at incorporating elements of programming, machine learning and other forms of data management into our training curriculum for pharmacists at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. In this way, pharmacists can start very early to adopt the digital mindset and relate more empirically to the multiple possibilities of implementing digital solutions to solve real-world problems, including drug discovery.
If the experience of companies like RxAll and the various successful fintech companies that have emerged from Nigeria is anything to go by, then it seems clear that funding follows good and profitable causes. If we can demonstrably prove that we are able to harness the possibilities of AI and machine learning to contribute to the creation of new and better drugs, we will attract the interest of venture capital firms and angel investors from around the world.
So let’s go back and rededicate ourselves to harnessing the new digital phenomena that are changing our world.
It is not forgotten that the government, as always, has a central and crucial role to play in all of this. As academia, we therefore also call on the government to help create the right environment that enables meaningful research. In addition to helping to ensure that basic facilities including clean water and electricity are available, the government’s policy direction should also be one that deliberately enables AI to take root and grow. For example, government can help create a level playing field for everyone by providing free and open access to big data. It can also help to deliberately attract, through incentives and subsidies, technology incubators in the AI space.
We must, both as individual scientists as well as an academy, continue to emphasize the importance of research and development to the march of human progress and why Nigeria must not abdicate its role and responsibilities in this all-important quest. While we urge government and society to fulfill their responsibilities to support research and development, we as researchers must also fulfill our responsibilities to hold onto a booming new world of possibilities opened up by AI and machine learning .
Just as we have seen in the financial and fintech space, there is significant potential for AI in the pharmaceutical space and that potential can translate not only into the relief of pain and suffering from disease, but also into economic growth and development.
- Adelusi-Adeluyi is a former Minister of Health and current President of the Nigeria Academy of Pharmacy