How AI might save the life sciences and pharma industries

Costing billions of pounds and taking up to a decade to develop and test new drugs, the industry is constantly looking for new efficiencies that will save time and money. Could AI be the answer?

22 June 2018

UK Prime Minister Theresa May recently unveiled plans that will hopefully prevent thousands of cancer deaths and improve the detection of chronic diseases through greater use of artificial intelligence (AI). Her announcement was the first major address on science from a Prime Minister since Gordon Brown laid out plans for research funding in 2009.

With research suggesting that AI can be used to diagnose cancer at an early stage and potentially reduce deaths by about 10% within 15 years, the PM plans to set targets for a ‘whole new industry around AI in healthcare.’ Initially, these will be centred on key research cities across the country, including Edinburgh, Oxford and Leeds.

The government’s strategy is to set high-level targets and then encourage companies, charities and universities to design the details, which is likely to involve new technologies being used to compare patients’ genes, their lifestyles and medical records with national data. It’s thought that this alone could lead to at least 50,000 people a year being diagnosed at an earlier stage of prostate, ovarian, lung or bowel cancer, which could result in 22,000 fewer cancer deaths by the year 2033. Theresa May commented:

“Achieving this mission will not only save thousands of lives, it will incubate a whole new industry around AI-in-healthcare, create high-skilled science jobs around the country and draw on existing centres of excellence and help to grow new ones.”

In an early indication of the potential of the new approach, the University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has already announced plans to work with the Alan Turing Institute. The collaboration will be used ‘to harness the power of data science and artificial intelligence to support clinical decision making to make services safer, quicker and more efficient.’ Speaking about the partnership, director of research at UCLH, Bryan Williams commented:

“Imagine a world where we could use this data to develop algorithms to rule out diseases, suggest treatment plans or predict behaviour. Our partnership with the institute has the potential to tackle some of the big issues that the NHS has never been able to solve.”

The detection of diseases is not the only area of healthcare where AI is thriving. It is also being increasingly used in drug discovery and clinical trials, where it can target patient populations more accurately and improve patient recruitment. With clinical trials currently accounting for 40% of pharma research budgets, sponsors are warmly welcoming the technology that could help to accelerate timelines and reduce costs. This would be achieved by improving data quality, increasing patient compliance and retention and identifying treatment efficacy more efficiently and reliably than ever before. As a result, fewer patients would be needed to generate statistically significant study data and patients would be less likely to drop out of trials.

Another huge benefit will be the reliability of data collection. In the past, researchers have relied heavily on written or verbal evidence from patients. This can be unreliable, prone to variability or not provide enough information for analytics and decision-making. Gathering real-time, patient data via wearable devices for example, can help to produce consistent, objective evidence of actual disease states and the impact of drug efficacy on symptoms, when a range of biometric signals such as heart rate, blood pressure, sleep and activity can be measured 24/7.

The enormous cost associated with drug development is one of the biggest challenges for pharmaceutical manufacturers. Costing billions of pounds and taking up to a decade to develop and test a new drug, the industry is constantly looking for new efficiencies that will save time, money and resources. Artificial intelligence may well be the answer.

How does this affect the Life Sciences talent market?

There’s increasingly more and more written about how AI will change and disrupt the world of work. That’s why we’ve delved into data from LinkedIn Talent Solutions to get a snapshot of the AI and Machine Learning talent pool in this industry.

Across Europe, there’s currently around 12,800 people that have what’re considered ‘AI skills’ in the Biotechnology, Medical Device and Pharma industries (e.g. computational linguistics, face recognition, genetic algorithms, machine learning etc.)

The clear majority of this talent is, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the Pharmaceuticals industry (53%). This is certainly an industry that’s finally starting to build momentum when it comes to applications of AI. Though no AI-driven drug has acquired regulatory approval yet, experts across the board anticipate that implementing AI will soon be necessary to compete in the industry.

When it comes to location, the top three countries where AI talent resides are the UK, Italy and France. Yet the highest demand for this type of talent is in the UK, France, Germany and Switzerland. This means that candidates with AI skills could benefit from relocating to these countries – particularly Germany and Switzerland – and could very well demand a higher salary or day rate with it!

On a much broader level, we can safely say that human scientists will not be replaced by AI anytime soon, but instead will be expected to work alongside the technology through asking the right questions and providing enough data to compute the algorithms. The nature of AI is to see signals that humans cannot detect, so its value and scope will be limited for professionals that insist on understanding exactly how predictions are derived, instead of aiming to validate them. But it will require a shift in skill-set, as teams will need to accommodate the new technologies brought in to enhance their work.

Is your team or business in need of AI talent? Or do you have in-demand AI skills and want a confidential discussion about your career options in the UK & Europe? Get in touch with me at timwatson@hydrogengroup.com.

* data from LinkedIn Talent Solutions, May 2018

Posted over 5 years ago
About the author:
Tim Watson

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