Exscientia, an Oxford-based company that uses artificial intelligence to develop drugs, won a $ 1.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create a Covid-19 treatment that also works for new mutations or other Sars viruses.
The company, a spin-off from the University of Dundee, is based at the Oxford Science Park. Its backers include the Japanese company SoftBank, the fund manager BlackRock and the American pharmaceutical company Bristol Myers Squibb.
Exscientia aims to develop a drug within 12 months and then recruit volunteers for clinical trials.
The company used its AI technology to design a new class of inhibitors targeting the main protease enzyme of Sars-CoV-2, which is essential for coronavirus replication. The firm will work to transform these small inhibitor molecules into a pill to treat Covid-19. He hopes the therapy will also be effective against the new mutations and other coronaviruses.
Denise Barrault, a biologist and senior portfolio manager at Exscientia who set up the new project and will manage it, said the company is targeting a low-cost pill that could be distributed around the world and given quickly to people who fall ill with it. Covid in ward in the event of serious illness and hospitalization.
She said: “People who contract Covid really need to be treated immediately. They would be given with the pill and the disease would be much less severe and people would avoid going to the hospital… We cannot vaccinate everyone and the vaccines will lose their effectiveness – only the richest countries will be able to follow.
Up to 15 biologists, chemists and AI specialists will work on the project.
“The danger of new emerging strains and mutations of coronavirus means that there is an urgent need for new antiviral drugs in this pandemic alongside vaccines, to respond more quickly to potential future coronavirus pandemics,” said Barrault.
Exscientia, using its AI technology, worked with German company Evotec on cancer immunotherapy for adults with advanced solid tumors. It is now being tested on people. It only took eight months to develop the treatment, while a separate drug for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), developed in partnership with Japanese company Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma, took 12 months.
This testing stage of drug development typically takes four to five years, but artificial intelligence can speed it up considerably. The drug OCD and another neuroscientific drug, for the psychosis of Alzheimer’s disease, are both in clinical trials in humans.
Exscientia has also reviewed thousands of existing drugs for their effectiveness as a Covid-19 treatment. However, as some were given as an infusion, setting up infusion centers has been problematic and none has been adopted as a Covid treatment.
The new grant is provided by the Covid-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, an initiative by the Gates, Wellcome and Mastercard Foundation to accelerate the response to the coronavirus pandemic.