How Ireland connects AI and life sciences

ireland science

Depending on your point of view, artificial intelligence (AI) can create jobs, make life easier, and solve many global problems; or, it’s going to cause mass unemployment, take over the world, and enslave humanity. 

In the life sciences space, AI is capable of tackling some of the biggest challenges when it comes to tasks like drug discovery and data analysis. Some countries have embraced the new technologies available, and one of them is Ireland. 

To tell us about Ireland’s approach, and how it is staying at the forefront of the field, is Jennie Lynch, senior vice president, life sciences at Enterprise Ireland. Enterprise Ireland is the government organization responsible for the development and growth of Irish enterprises in world markets. 

Transforming drug development

So just how is AI changing the biopharma industry landscape in Ireland and beyond?

Lynch said almost every aspect of the industry is being impacted. She said it is transforming the discovery of new candidates for drug development, and significantly reducing the time and cost associated with bringing drugs from molecule to market via improved clinical trial and manufacturing processes. 

“The advent of intelligent automation and sophisticated algorithms can also lead to the analysis of complex chemical structures and predict new structures likely to result in successful drug candidates,” Lynch said. 

“Virtual screening can then utilize existing datasets to simulate potential chemical reactions, expediting the clinical trial process and ultimately leading to improved outcomes for patients.”

Lynch explained that algorithms can now analyze large datasets of patients’ electronic health records (EHRs) to identify patients who are likely to respond well to a particular drug, meaning previously incurable conditions could be treatable – a concept not possible before the advent of AI. 

Once a drug has been approved for use, Lynch said, AI also allows for huge efficiencies in the manufacturing process with algorithms designed to improve the applied process design and scale-up stages, and to detect optimal manufacturing parameters – thus reducing both development time and waste.

Faster and better

Of course, there are concerns that AI will adversely affect the number of jobs in countries pushing it to the forefront. However, Lynch isn’t convinced this is the case.

“The general consensus is that technology doesn’t supplant people, and so I do not think that there should be negative focus on the rise of AI from an employment perspective. I think the emphasis should moreso be on the fact that AI will enable innovators to do things faster and better, and may potentially result in key learnings and insights that would not have been possible before,” she stressed.

There are already rumblings in some nations that legislation may be introduced to regulate AI.

Lynch said: “The regulatory framework which oversees the development and manufacturing process to bring novel drugs to market will need to be updated to take AI technology advancements into consideration. For instance, traditionally, drugs are tested in animals before moving to humans – however, with AI and machine learning, it will be possible to utilize pre-existing human model data to ascertain insights regarding the efficacy of a new drug or solution. This type of sensitive drug and patient data will be susceptible to cybersecurity concerns, which the FDA has recently noted via its Cybersecurity Modernization Action Plan to improve the cybersecurity of AI systems.”

In Europe, she added, the European Union has proposed the AI Act, which will specifically pertain to AI from a major regulator and will assign risk across several different categories. 

This Act, she said, will also update liability rules for manufacturers in an effort to standardize AI security on a national level. Lynch said countries will need to collaborate and align on AI policy and legislation to ensure a fair and transparent approach when implementing this technology.

The time for AI is now

Ireland has long been at the forefront of adopting new technologies, and while AI and machine learning aren’t as developed as they no doubt will be, companies need to adopt and adapt to new technologies. But how do they forge ahead?

Lynch said while the advent of AI-driven drug discovery has grown significantly over the past decade, there is still a significant way to go before utilization of this technology across the industry is widespread. 

“With that in mind, the time to consider how to best implement AI driven solutions is now – to decrease development time, reduce overall cost, and improve patient outcomes. Companies eager to incorporate AI and machine learning should look at how these technologies can augment and/or enable pre-existing processes within their value chain and incorporate AI in parallel with pre-existing services,” Lynch said.

And Enterprise Ireland can help with the process. 

“Enterprise Ireland is committed to providing support to companies seeking to grow and scale while driving technology and innovation forward. Enterprise Ireland provides the support necessary to enable companies to achieve a competitive advantage through the development of novel solutions, leading to improved outcomes across the pharmaceutical sector.”

Technology investment for AI in Ireland

Indeed, on June 6, Ireland’s Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Simon Coveney T.D and Minister of State for Trade Promotion and Digital Transformation, Dara Calleary T.D. together with Enterprise Ireland announced €47 million ($50.2 million) of funding for the continuation of the Enterprise Ireland Technology Gateway Programme until 2029.

Charged with increasing the levels of interaction between Irish Industry and the Technological Universities (TU) and Institutes of Technology (IoT), the program is co-financed by the Government of Ireland and the European Union through the ERDF Southern, Eastern & Midland Regional Programme 2021-27 and the Northern & Western Regional Programme 2021-27.

To date, more than 4,500 companies have spent €60 million ($64.1 million) via the 17 Technology Gateways collaborating with researchers in the TUs & IoTs. The majority of these companies are small and medium enterprises who gain access to facilities and knowledge that would be unavailable to them without the Technology Gateways. The role of Gateway staff is to mobilize the talents of the host institutions’ research base to deliver technical solutions for the Irish industry.

Ireland: a hub for health tech and AI

Lynch said Ireland is recognized globally as a leading health tech hub, featuring world-class researchers, innovative indigenous companies, leading global multinationals, clinical specialists, and ancillary service providers. 

“As technologies evolve and markets change, Ireland has worked hard to sustain its significant position as leading provider of innovation within the pharmaceutical sector over the years,” Lynch said. 

She pointed to several Irish innovators and entrepreneurs, who are at the heart of this thriving ecosystem, one example being BioSimulytics, a company using AI to digitize key steps in how new drug molecules are designed, to transform the success rates of new drug development.

Akkure is a patient-centric digital platform that uses AI to match patients’ data with the most relevant clinical trials, while Biologit is a monitoring platform powered by AI for pharmacovigilance and safety screening for medical devices, cosmetics or veterinary products. 

Lynch also highlighted Nuritas, which uses its proprietary ‘Nuritas Magnifier’ AI tool to discover unique bioactive peptides. Another company, Deciphex, utilizes AI to enable pathologists to drive high-quality, efficient reporting, enhancing patient care and accelerating drug development.

ICON is another company using AI to speed up patient recruitment, site selection, protocol optimization, and clinical trial design. By leveraging machine learning algorithms, ICON can identify eligible patients for clinical trials more efficiently, increasing the speed at which clinical trials can be conducted. This leads to faster drug development, which ultimately benefits patients who may receive life-saving treatments sooner.

It’s one thing being at the forefront of technology, but how does Lynch believe Ireland will stay ahead of the pack as technology evolves?

“Irish innovators and entrepreneurs must embrace advances in AI and machine learning, and utilize the capabilities of this technology to advance their own novel solutions within the pharmaceutical space,” Lynch concluded. 

“It will be through the optimization of AI that Irish companies can harness the exponential possibilities of this technology, and ultimately lead to improved outcomes for those most in need.”

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