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The toll on medical professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic has been huge. In the UK, nearly 100,000 members of the National Health Service (NHS) workforce are currently off sick – around one in 10 employees. Half of those are absent because they are sick themselves, or have been forced to self-isolate because of their proximity to someone with COVID-19.
The absences are stretching healthcare provision in the country to its limits. But it’s not just frontline doctors and nurses who are struggling to keep going due to illness. Human labor has been pushed and pulled due to the pandemic in pharmacies and laboratories processing tests and coming up with new drugs. It’s something Joanna Shields, the CEO of BenevolentAI, an artificial intelligence-powered drug discovery startup, has been working on.
“The coronavirus pandemic reinforced how human intelligence partnered with purposeful technology can achieve inspirational results, even when the world is locked down,” she told Insider. “While AI models and algorithms will never fully replace scientists and clinicians, they can save time and money — which is crucial in our current climate.”
In the early days of the pandemic, BenevolentAI set its technology to work on the pandemic, trying to come up with treatments that could help alleviate pressure on medical systems. “Our AI models ingest scientific literature at scale, deriving contextual relationships between genes, diseases, drugs, and biological pathways leading to the proposal of novel or optimal drug targets and mechanisms, as well as the identification of the patients who will respond to treatment,” Shields said. “Such relationships may be completely new, previously or previously unrecognized due to the overwhelming volume of biomedical information that is now available.”
One solution they hit upon by combing through the literature was the use of one drug, barcitinib from Eli Lilly, that could help treat COVID patients. A November 2020 paper published in Science Advances by frontline doctors who took the signals from the machine learning trawl through literature and decided to test it on patients through the National Centre for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in the US reported positive results. The drug, identified by BenevolentAI, contributed to a 71% reduction in mortality in patients with moderate to severe COVID-19.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US used those results to grant it emergency use authorization on a wider scale, and it’s been used in hospitals there since the end of 2020. In the UK, barcitinib is currently undergoing tests as part of the UK Recovery Trial, where patients recuperating from COVID-19 are being given various drugs to see how best to treat future ill patients.
Quick action like this could transform post-pandemic healthcare, Shields thinks. “Experiencing a global health crisis on this scale, we have never been more aware of the fragility of human life,” she said. “One positive outcome of COVID-19 is that it has united science and tech for good, accelerating data-sharing agreements and encouraging the open publication of research results. This new environment of collaboration has provided a glimpse of the beginnings of a more open and adaptable R&D model that can accelerate the delivery of innovative and life-changing outcomes for patients.”
It’s also having an impact on those being drawn to participate and collaborate on finding solutions for healthcare problems that are blighting the world. In a trying time, Shields believes pharma- and med-tech have stepped up – and that success could draw more people into the field who can help cause future leaps forward. “We have also seen a significant increase in tech talent being drawn to healthcare or pharmaceuticals, driven by a desire to solve real-world problems and improve quality of life,” she said. “I believe that this passion and intelligence, partnered with new technologies, will propel us forward and bring new discoveries, new cures, and new hope to patients.”
It’s one that’s proven more necessary than ever before — and while AI has come under its fair share of criticism, there’s real hope, based on its use in this pandemic, that it could be harnessed for good by the time the next pandemic comes.