AI may just be the prescription for pharmaceutical’s future

In a recent Infosys multi-market research study, ‘Amplifying Human Potential Toward Purposeful AI’, pharmaceutical and life sciences emerged as the leader in the journey to AI maturity.  For several years now, the pharmaceutical sector has been quietly using AI and automation technologies for clinical trials, drug analysis, and to accelerate the process of launching products.   

Artificial intelligence is also making a huge contribution beyond just making operations more efficient. It’s saving lives. One example is improving melanoma survival rates by identifying fatal blotches much earlier and more accurately by using technology to amplify human capability. Detecting this deadly cancer early makes a huge difference—survival rates can go as high as 98 percent from as low as 16 percent if detection happens before the disease progresses to the lymph nodes.   

Today, the Translational Genomics Research Institute’s Center for Rare Childhood Disorders is running extremely complex algorithms to analyze massive quantities of genetic and molecular data to diagnose medical conditions and develop personalized treatments. AI-led systems are not just curating far more medical insights than human professionals, but unlike humans, making decisions completely free of cognitive biases which allow for more objective diagnosis and treatments. While this may not always work without human interventions entirely, it does make a huge impact when decisions are based entirely on the merit of strong data analysis.    

Our research study found that 40 percent of pharmaceutical/ life sciences respondents, the highest among all industries, said their organization had deployed AI and that it was working as expected. Big data, followed by machine learning, were the other top technologies of interest. These disruptive technologies promise to open big opportunities for the sector. With the use of Electronic Health Records (EHR) growing rapidly in recent times, and with about four in five physicians in the U.S. complying with it today, there is a real opportunity to apply AI to this data, and work towards creating better solutions for wellness.   

This is especially the case in underserved areas such as early detection of disease and creation of personalized treatment options. The biggest roadblock thus far has been the fear of data loss and data silos, not just in different places, but also in therapeutic silos within a provider organization. However, this is changing faster than the industry anticipated, thanks to the millennial healthcare consumer, who uses a simple logic to validate her choice: if I can trust technology to manage my money, I can trust it to manage my health data. And I trust in their logic. 

A preview of the future of AI-enabled treatment came from Necker Children’s Hospital, which was the first ever to genetically alter bone marrow to counter a DNA defect responsible for sickle cell disease in a French teenager, who more than a year after the procedure, was doing just fine. Then there’s Switzerland’s Novartis Pharma that has acquired CAR-T therapy capability, in which patients’ T cells are removed, genetically altered and put back in, in a process lasting a mere fortnight. It is AI-led technologies and analytics that enable the massive analysis of patient information, genetic profiling, and analysis of medical images, making medical advancements more accessible. And this translates into more good news: personalized medicine, more accurate diagnosis, and shortened regulatory approvals to make drugs available much faster. AI is making it all possible. 

Going forward, gene therapy can bring about a transformation in treatment where medicine is tailored for every individual. AI could be just what the doctor ordered to help us create precise and personalized medicine. We might well be nearing the end of the ‘one-drug-for-all’ era in medicine.     

Any talk of AI in the context of healthcare inevitably turns to the question of ethics. Hence pharmaceutical companies need to train and test AI systems repeatedly before deploying them. Compliance related issues are eminent. The industry is still looking for validation methods to make AI solutions acceptable to regulatory agencies across the globe. However, excessive regulations also come with a cost to society, preventing us from taking advantage of all the potential benefits that AI can bring in saved lives, cured diseases, and global wellness.   

It is critical to make sure that society can take full advantage of the capabilities of AI systems while minimizing the possible undesired consequences on people. Safety is very important, alongside fairness, inclusiveness, and equality. This brings us to the future of employment in the life sciences arena. My viewpoint is that while AI will automate many jobs of a routine, repetitive nature, it will, like every technology revolution before it, create new opportunities as well. AI will prove to be complementary assistants to human knowledge workers – tools made by people for the use of people. Machines to work alongside humans so the latter may be amplified.   

Recently, working to create a digital lab for a large pharmaceutical company, we shared the immense pleasure of lab chemists leveraging modern technology to automate processes, avoid errors and achieve near-zero rework. So many lab hours otherwise spent fixing issues were now saved! Digital technologies like AI are most valuable to companies that harness it to emancipate and enhance their human workforces. Organizations appear to be in agreement – in our research study, 80 percent of those embracing AI say they will retrain employees to support AI processes, reskill and redeploy.     

AI alone cannot cure disease. It cannot replace doctors. It cannot find and articulate all the problems a human can. It will help us understand a disease condition much faster. It will help a physician make the right decisions. It will make these decisions more accurate and reduce trial and errors. This also helps scientists fail fast, fix errors, and grow in confidence in what they are seeking to do. AI will standardize the way medicines are made, prescribed and consumed today. The coming of age of AI in life sciences and pharmaceutical will serve us all well. 

Kamal Biswas, Partner, Life Sciences, Infosys Consulting

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