A new drug created with artificial intelligence (AI) to treat patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) will be entering human clinical trials this March – a first for AI. It has cut the drug development time from four and a half years to just 12 months, accelerating the time it typically takes to develop drugs for clinical trials.

Exscientia, an Oxford-based AI start-up, collaborated with the Japanese pharmaceutical firm Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma to develop the OCD drug.

It has been difficult to invent new drugs with AI that are safe and effective for humans to use. But, it has been successful with machine learning algorithms to look through data and identify which patients can benefit the most from existing medicines. AI has also been used beyond medical approaches, and has also been used to track the coronavirus outbreak and to tackle America’s opioid crisis. 

It costs about $2.6bn on average to develop drugs using traditional methods, and using AI can not only make this process cheaper, it can make it faster and more effective for patients with a range of illnesses from cancers to heart disease.

The new drug to treat OCD was found with Exscientia’s AI algorithms to identify the best chemical structure that would target a specific receptor in the brain involved in OCD. The drug, DSP-1181, was chosen as the most suitable candidate out of tens of millions of potential molecules. It’s expected to last longer and have a stronger efficacy than other existing medications for OCD.

Andrew Hopkins, chief executive of the start-up and a molecular biophysicist said “The AI can learn faster than conventional approaches, so we had to make and test only 350 compounds, a fifth of the normal number of compound candidates, which is record-breaking productivity. The algorithms can be applicated to any drug targets, against a huge range of diseases in oncology, cardiovascular and rare diseases.”

Exscientia currently consists of a 60-person team and is working with other pharmaceutical companies such as Bayer and Sanofi to develop new drugs for other diseases. It has raised $43m from Bristol-Myers Squibb, among others.

Toru Kimura, senior executive research director of Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma added “We are very excited with the results of the joint research. We will continue to work hard to make this clinical study a success so that it may deliver new benefits to patients as soon as possible.”

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