Revolutionizing the Healthcare System
A Boston company is using artificial intelligence to develop drugs in less time with lowered costs.
When Niven Narain, cofounder of the local pharmaceutical company BergPharma, first moved to Boston in 2008, he hoped to develop a bolder approach to healthcare and drug development in a city he says is the “epicenter of development in medicine.” Five years later, he’s developed a drug for cancer and is working on therapies for obesity, diabetes, autism, and even Parkinson’s disease. He now has partnerships with major research organizations like Harvard Medical School, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, Northeastern University, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, among other places. In many ways, Narain has surpassed his original goals.
BergPharma is one of the first research organizations to use “artificial intelligence” (AI) in the areas of biology and medicine. AI is a computer-based technology system that helps to develop intelligent machines and increase productivity. AI systems can perceive the environment around them and will take action to help maximize success, Narain says, so AI systems are often used by big data companies like Google or Amazon to predict buying, or on Wall Street.
“At BergPharma, we want to understand patients better by looking at their biology and using that information to create an economically and fiscally responsible healthcare system,” Narain says. “We see ourselves reshaping the building blocks of the healthcare industry one step at a time.”
Narain, an experienced researcher, originally developed BergPharma, in order to cut drug discovery times in half. In a healthcare system where drugs take at least 12 years and $4 billion to develop, Narain says that it’s imperative to make a change. “We want to eventually produce a drug in less than five years using artificial intelligence,” he says.
How can AI help to develop drugs? Narain says to think of your body as a system. Your cells have hubs, proteins, and genes, and AI can learn the habits of those healthy cells. When something goes wrong, AI can then assess where the problem in the system might be, and later it can even predict when something does not go according to plan. “In medicine, AI can figure out which proteins and genes have gone awry,” Narain says. “It’s the same thing that we do in advertising, business, or technology.” These discoveries, then, can be used to develop drugs that will stop proteins and genes from going awry.
This method of drug production is revolutionary because it approaches pharmaceutical research from a much different angle, focusing on biological systems rather than using a chemical-based approach, which could ultimately be a cheaper and faster route to drug development.
Plus, AI is an unbiased technology, something that Narain says is hugely important in scientific discoveries. “What happens if your discovery contradicts literature or what is known in the science world?” he asks. “We make decisions based on public literature and known biology, so if your discoveries contradict what we know, they are never taken forward. AI allows us to be unbiased in our developments, to see what we might not have seen before.”
Through the use of AI, BergPharma recently developed BPM31510, a cancer therapy. The drug is currently undergoing clinical trials, and can be administered in two major dosages: topical dosages for skin cancer and intravenous dosages for solid tumors and leukemia. Narain explains that his researchers developed the drug by studying healthy tissues and comparing them to cancer cells at the level of the genome. After looking at the characteristics of the cells, his company used AI to understand the cancer cells’ behaviors in certain environments. When they put the cancer cells in healthy environments, they would be able to predict the results through AI. They then moved back into the lab where they knocked down or over expressed certain genes, which caused the cancer cells to undergo cell death.
And while BergPharma is specifically focused on BPM31510, a therapy that could possibly revolutionize cancer care, researchers at the company are also attempting to cover a breadth of other concerns: diabetes, obesity, Parkinson’s, and even autism. “What’s provocative about this is that we’re working on coming up with biomarkers for Parkinson’s and autism, so that through blood tests, doctors could assess how far into the disease a patient might be,” Narain says. “We’ve been studying blood and tissues from patients with Parkinson’s, so we’re on our way to finding these biomarkers, which would vastly improve clinical care and help us develop a drug. Before this, these conditions could be identified only through observation.”
Narain is confident that he can help to reduce disease while lowering the cost of prescription medication and revolutionizing the development of drugs through AI. In what is arguably a convoluted American healthcare system, Narain believes that he has, ultimately, found part of the answer to the problem. But while his methods look promising, only time and clinical trials will tell if they are effective.