Exscientia’s Andrew Hopkins: The Man Using AI to Cure Disease | Pharmaceutical industry

It was early one morning in 1996 when Andrew Hopkins, then a PhD student in biophysics at the University of Oxford, had a brain wave as he was returning home from a late night lab meeting.

He was trying to find molecules to fight HIV and better understand drug resistance.

“I remember this idea struck me that there has to be a better way to do drug discovery other than the complex and expensive way that everyone was following,” he says. “Why couldn’t we design an automated approach to drug design that uses all the information in parallel so that even a lowly PhD student can create a drug? This idea really struck me. I almost remember the exact moment to this day. And that was the genesis of the idea that eventually became Exscientia.

It was to prove a lucrative idea. Hopkins started the company in 2012 as a spin-out from the University of Dundee, where he was then working as a professor. It uses artificial intelligence (AI) systems, which are trained to mimic human creativity, to develop new drugs. It involves the use of automated computer algorithms to sift through large data sets to design


Age 50

Family Married with a 10 year old daughter. He met his wife, Iva Hopkins Navratilova, at Pfizer. His company, Kinetic Discovery, merged with his to create the Exscientia Experimental Biology Laboratories.

Education Dwr-y-Felin Comprehensive and Neath College in South Wales; degree in chemistry in Manchester; PhD in Molecular Biophysics at Oxford.

Pay £415,000

Last holidays Czech Republic to visit his wife’s family at Easter.

Best advice ever given “My father worked in a factory. He told me: ‘Get a good education and find a job that you like to do. It’s worth six thousand dollars more a year. And I definitely have a job that I love to do.

Biggest Career Mistake “It is too early to tell.” He quotes Miles Davis: “It’s not the note you play that’s the bad note – it’s the note you play next that makes it good or bad.”

Words he abuses “Fundamentally”; “The heart of the problem”.

how he relaxes Reading and dog walking. “I am a bibliophile. I immerse myself in books to relax.

new compounds that can treat diseases and help select the right patients for each treatment.

This approach significantly reduces drug development time. Hopkins says that for the Exscientia pipeline, it typically takes 12 to 15 months from initiating a project to identifying a drug candidate, compared to four and a half years in the traditional pharmaceutical industry.

The average drug development cost is $2 billion, according to Deloitte’s latest pharmaceutical report, and many drugs fail – the failure rate is 90% for drugs in early clinical studies ( where they are tested on humans).

Typically, pharmaceutical companies make 2,500 compounds to test against a specific disease, while AI allows Oxford-based Exscientia to whittle that number down to around 250, Hopkins says. “It’s a much more methodical approach.”

Last autumn the Welsh scientist became one of Britain’s richest entrepreneurs, with a paper fortune of £400m after the company debuted on the stock market for $2.9bn on the Nasdaq in New York, making it one of Britain’s largest biotechnology companies. Hopkins’ nearly 16% stake is now worth £170m as the share price lost 60% of its value in a bloodbath for Wall Street stocks.

Exscientia was part of a transatlantic trend that is defying government attempts to build a biotech powerhouse in the UK. Abcam, a pioneering Cambridge antibody company, recently announced that it was moving its stock market listing from the UK to the US. “We are a British company; we choose to be in Oxford because we can attract global talent,” says Hopkins. “But to be considered a global company, we listed on what is the global technology index, which is the Nasdaq. What we have now is an incredibly international shareholder base from around the world.

The company developed the first AI-designed drug to enter clinical trials – a treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder in partnership with Japan’s Sumitomo, although Sumitomo later decided not to continue. The Japanese firm is currently studying another drug developed by Exscientia, for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease psychosis, in early human trials.

Hopkins, now 50, fell in love with science thanks to an inspiring chemistry teacher. He has worked as a scientist since the age of 16, when he had a stint in industrial chemistry at Port Talbot Steelworks in South Wales, which he says taught him the benefits of automation to increase productivity.

He spent nearly a decade at US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, where he was involved in a “data warehouse” project that led to some of the first applications of machine learning in the pharmaceutical industry, the results of which were published in Nature in 2006.

Over the next five years at the University of Dundee, he deepened his research into the application of data mining and machine learning to drug discovery. He says “being a professor is actually one of the best jobs in the world” and gave him the freedom to research AI methods extensively. He maintains his ties to the university, where he holds the honorary chair of medical informatics in the School of Life Sciences.

Exscientia (meaning “of knowledge” in Latin) soon moved into the Schrödinger Building in Oxford Science Park and now employs 450 people worldwide, from Vienna to Boston, Miami and Osaka, split evenly between the AI engineering, chemistry and biology.

It’s building a new robotics lab in Milton Park near Oxford, focused on automating chemistry and biology to speed up drug development and its stated goal is “AI-designed drugs, made by scientists.” robots”. Other pharmaceutical companies have also introduced some automation into their processes, but lab technology is generally similar to what it was when he was a student in the 1990s, Hopkins says.

The company is involved in 30 projects, some in partnership with large pharmaceutical companies including the French Sanofi and the American Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS). He is also working with the University of Oxford on the development of drugs that target neuroinflammation for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Among the company’s solo projects, a cancer drug for solid tumors is about to enter the first clinical trials.

Exscientia is also working on a broader coronavirus pill to rival Paxlovid, the Covid-19 treatment made by Hopkins’ former employer Pfizer. This work is funded by a $1.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has taken an equity stake in Exscientia. Other investors in the company include BMS, Celgene (now a subsidiary of BMS) and Germany’s Evotec, as well as Japan’s Softbank, US fund manager BlackRock and life sciences investor Novo Holdings.

Hopkins says the team has identified a set of molecules that could work as a broader treatment for Covid-19, novel mutations and other coronaviruses, and there will be more news later this year. The company is aiming for a low-cost pill that could be distributed around the world and given quickly to people who get sick to prevent serious illness and hospitalization. Covid-19 infections are rising again in 110 countries and World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned the pandemic is far from over.

Companies in the pharmaceutical industry have started using AI in recent years. AstraZeneca is investing heavily there for all of its research and development infrastructure, and GSK has built an AI team of 120 engineers, with plans to reach 160 next year, making it the largest internal team in this guy in the industry.

AI systems require a lot of computing power and huge data sets. Their use is expected to increase the number of new drugs approved each year – typically 40 to 50 in the United States – to many more. Hopkins confidently predicts, “This is how all drugs will be designed in the future. Over the next decade, this technology will become ubiquitous.

Leave a Comment