Alphabet’s Isomorphic Labs Says It Will Use AI to Discover New Drugs

Alphabet’s Isomorphic Labs Says It Will Use AI to Discover New Drugs
Photo: John Moore, Getty Images

Alphabet has spun off a new company called Isomorphic Labs which seeks to use artificial intelligence to discover new pharmaceutical drugs. The commercial venture will reportedly build off of advancements made by Alphabet’s DeepMind, which used a model called AlphaFold2 to predict the shape of proteins in the human body with near-perfect accuracy, something viewed as a key breakthrough in the scientific and medical communities.

In a blog post announcing the new company, founder and CEO Demis Hassabis laid out ambitious goals, claiming the project could “reimagine the entire drug discovery process from first principles with an AI-first approach and, ultimately, to model and understand some of the fundamental mechanisms of life.”

Hassabis is also the CEO of DeepMind but the two companies will be separate, according to a spokesperson who spoke to The Verge. The new company will add to Alphabet’s growing portfolio of healthcare business, which includes Verily, a biotech firm, and moonshot life-extension company Calico.

If successful, Isomorphic Labs claims it will accelerate the drug discovery process, and “build powerful predictive and generative models of complex biological phenomena.” In a more practical sense though, any time AI can save in drug discovery could have a significant impact on a system currently facing a logjam. According to a report released by trade group the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, an average of new drugs takes at least ten years to journey from discovery into the marketplace with an estimated cost of about $US2.6 ($4) billion.

Isomorphic Labs will by no means be the first company to try and apply AI to medical discovery. Pfizer, for example, has spent years working with IBM’s Watson in the hunt for immuno-oncology drugs while global pharmaceutical firm UBC recently partnered with Microsoft to use its cloud computing and artificial intelligence to support drug discovery and development. Nvidia meanwhile has partnered with AstraZeneca, Schrödinger, and the University of Florida to improve research into AI aided drug discovery. There’s also a deep grab bag of other smaller firms looking to use AI to accelerate drug discovery as well.

Anyone fearing Alphabet’s sudden overnight takeover of the medical industry can probably rest easy for now. Big Tech’s disruption of healthcare has been long predicted, but aside from some still developing projects at Amazon and Apple, that vision has yet to fully materialise.

In the company’s blog post though, Hassabis described the venture as a type of watershed moment for artificial intelligence as a technology.

For years, the greatest advancements in AI have been documented through accolades in games like AlphaGo or incremental advancements. Now, with Isomorphic Labs, the company believes the technology has matured enough to start solving real-world problems.

“We are at an exciting moment in history now where these techniques and methods are becoming powerful and sophisticated enough to be applied to real-world problems including scientific discovery itself,” Hassabis wrote. To that, we’ll see.