in ,

Nigeria: Artificial Intelligence for New Drug Discovery

Artificial intelligence helps to make pharmaceutical research and new drug discovery less expensive and more productive, argues Julius Adelusi-Adeluyi.

The world is making rapid progress in the areas of Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. These are the core drivers of what many analysts have come to refer to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, epitomized by the increased whittling away of the boundaries that hitherto existed between the physical, digital and biological worlds.

There is a clear imperative for pharmacists, pharmaceutical scientists and medical professionals in the field of research and development in developing countries like Nigeria, to increasingly tap into this world of big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning and partake of the revolution that is happening before our very eyes.

And the reason is simple. Artificial intelligence is helping to make pharmaceutical research and new drug discovery less expensive and definitely more productive. Researchers realize that in the time that it would have taken to test the efficacy of say a handful of chemical molecules manually, with AI, it is possible to test several hundreds of different chemical molecules. With AI, therefore, we can create better, safer and more affordable medicines, within a much shorter time frame too.

Then, there is the issue of collaboration among scientists. In a world that has become so intricately networked, there is no excuse for our researchers to work in silos anymore. Pharmaceutical researchers, therefore, need to digitize their work in order to facilitate access by other scientists to such work-in-progress and in so doing enhancing the possibility of collaboration with fellow scientists both within and outside the country.

I am aware that there are ongoing initiatives to establish a national open access repository and research data management platform. I want to encourage academics and researchers to seek out the promoters and be part of this project. As an academy we will also be looking at collaborating with the Nigerian Association of Pharmacists and Pharmaceutical Scientists in the Americas (NAPPSA) towards setting up an open access pharmaceutical research depository and data management platform in Nigeria. Such a centralized and readily accessible repository of research data would be invaluable at enabling researchers have a clear view of ongoing researches, curtailing unnecessary duplication of effort and as I said earlier, facilitating collaboration. I would be particularly keen to see collaboration not only across country boundaries but also across disciplines. It would be our delight as an Academy to witness researchers in diverse pharmaceutical and medical disciplines collaborating to discover new and better drugs to halt the march of illness and disease.

I want to quickly acknowledge that there is a handful of pharmacists who are already deploying artificial intelligence towards solving real world health challenges. Adebayo Alonge the founder of a company called RxAll has made a name for himself with his Scanners which detect fake drugs, using the power of artificial intelligence. Naturally therefore, his organization has attracted not only global media attention but also venture capital from offshore.

What needs to happen now is for the penetration of artificial intelligence to deepen and broaden especially among pharmacists, pharmaceutical and allied scientists who operate in the critical areas of research and development.

Pharmacists, pharmaceutical scientists and indeed medical professionals of all hues in the developing world must refuse to be left behind in a world that is being formidably impacted by the forces of big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning. We must make a deliberate effort to stake a claim to this global revolution.

The obstacles are of course, formidable, but we must continue to think outside of the box. Indeed, we must imagine that there is no box, whatsoever.

I appreciate that penetration of artificial intelligence will naturally be impeded by the relative scarcity of AI expertise in these parts. But we can begin to look at incorporating elements of programming, machine learning and other forms of data management in our training curriculum for pharmacists at both undergraduate and post-graduate levels. This way, pharmacists can very early on, begin to imbibe the digital mindset and relate more empirically with the manifold possibilities of deploying digital solutions to solving real world problems including drug discovery.

If the experience of companies like RxAll and the several successful fintech companies that have originated from Nigeria is something to go by, then clearly, funding appears to follow good and profitable causes. If we are able to demonstrably prove that we are capable of harvesting the possibilities of artificial intelligence and machine learning in contributing to the emergence of new and better drugs, we will attract the interest of Venture Capital firms and Angel Investors from around the world.

So let us go back and rededicate ourselves to tapping into the new digital phenomena that are changing our world.

This is not forgetting that the government, as always, has a central and crucial role to play in all of this. As an Academy, therefore, we are also calling on the government to help create the right environment that makes meaningful research possible. In addition to helping to ensure that basic facilities including clean water and electricity are available, government policy direction must also be such that deliberately enables AI to take root and grow. For instance, government can help to create a level playing field for all by providing free and open access to big data. It could also help to deliberately, through incentives and subsidies, attract technology incubators in the AI space.