From The Editor | April 19, 2021

UCB And Microsoft Collaborate On AI For Therapeutics R&D

Ed Miseta

By Ed Miseta, Chief Editor, Clinical Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @EdClinical

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UCB and Microsoft have worked together previously, collaborating on IT solutions in drug discovery and development. Now the two companies have taken that collaboration a step further with an expansion that will allow UCB to better discover and develop medicines for patients living with severe diseases.

The collaboration builds on the work the two companies started last year when participating in a consortium to discover a new COVID-19 antiviral. That effort was a part of the COVID Moonshot, a multi-center initiative started to accelerate the development of a treatment for COVID. The initiative allows scientists to view submitted drug designs and experimental data to inspire new design ideas. Machine learning tools were used to determine which drug designs should be made and tested in the laboratory. 

Roger Palframan, head of external innovation and U.S. discovery science at UCB, notes the two partners have worked together on enterprise capabilities within UCB before partnering on the COVID Moonshot effort. The latest collaboration will combine Microsoft’s computational services, cloud, and AI with UCB’s therapeutics discovery and development capabilities.

 “Through Microsoft’s AI for health program, we were able to bring our computational design capabilities together with their cloud capability,” says Palframan. “Combining our efforts for the Moonshot project enabled us to quickly screen in silico for compounds to identify starting points for potential candidates to treat COVID-19.”

Combining Strengths of the Partners

Essentially, UCB has a lot of data and drug design capabilities, and Microsoft was able to provide the computational power to determine what molecules may have shown benefits that assist patients with COVID-19.

Roger Palframan, head of external innovation and U.S. discovery science, UCB
Roger Palframan, head of external innovation and U.S. discovery science, UCB
“What we were able to do is show how you can bring together a therapeutics R&D company and a technology partner,” says Palframan. “There is a ways to go, but the computer and AI capabilities of Microsoft, when combined with the tools, data and insights we have at UCB, can enable us to better understand the patient needs, the disease, and to accelerate in multiple ways the development of drugs to treat that disease.”  

The effort was also a novel experience for UCB, which is not an infectious disease company and will not be pursuing an antiviral for COVID-19.

“It’s not an area of drug development that we will pursue,” adds Palframan. “What we plan to do in the future with Microsoft is bring their engineers together with our scientists in a close collaboration. That can include everything from understanding the patient experience, addressing areas of unmet need, molecular design, target identification, and improving clinical trial design and implementation. Our long-term ambition with this collaboration is to make AI widely available across our organization, to help all our people.”  

The Patient Experience

There are several benefits expected to be realized by the latest collaboration. They include understanding the biological causes of a disease, data-driven insights to enable faster discovery of molecules and accelerating clinical development timelines. But in this era of greater patient centricity, one of the more interesting benefits will be the improvement of a patient’s overall journey.

“We would like to understand the patient experience in a way that does not treat them as a homogenous group,” says Palframan. “We know that every patient experience is different, and through integrated analysis of the right data, we can better identify patient sub-populations based on a number of criteria, and cluster them to enable more tailored treatment approaches. We are starting to explore this in specific autoimmune skin and joint diseases, and in epilepsy.”

Palframan notes the healthcare and life sciences benefits of AI go deeper than simply identifying a subgroup of patients or specific impacts of a disease. The utilization of AI can help healthcare organizations gain a better understanding of the patient experience, eventually leading to improved therapeutic design.

“UCB wants to transform patient’s lives,” he adds. “We have high ambition, and these types of technology solutions are necessary to help us accomplish what we want to achieve around improving our data science capabilities. These new partnerships become essential, and it's great that UCB and Microsoft have been able to come together.”

Editor’s note: In January 2021, the Broad Institute of MIT, Verily, and Microsoft announced a strategic partnership to accelerate new innovations in biomedicine through the Terra platform. Terra was developed by Verily and the Broad Institute as a secure, scalable, open-source platform for researchers to access data, run analysis tools, and collaborate.