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Startup BenevolentAI leveraged its drug discovery platform to uncover a previously approved medication that could be used as a possible treatment for the novel coronavirus, which has now entered clinical trials, according to TechCrunch. For context, the uncovered medication — baricitinib — is currently sold as a prescription drug for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis under the name Olumiant, and was developed by Eli Lilly and Incyte.
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The startup’s use of AI to uncover an already approved drug as a potential therapy for the novel coronavirus could go a long way toward accelerating global treatment efforts. By utilizing its drug discovery and development platform to identify previously approved drugs that could potentially treat and halt the progression of the coronavirus, BenevolentAI was able to uncover baricitinib as a possible treatment in 90 minutes of computing time and three days of work, per TechCrunch.
The startup’s rapid discovery of baricitinib as a potential coronavirus therapy comes at a time when clinicians and pharmaceutical companies have launched over 100 coronavirus-focused human experiments in the US alone in the scramble to identify viable treatments.
Pending the results of baricitinib’s clinical trials, BenevolentAI’s work could be significant in helping to accelerate the rollout of a feasible coronavirus treatment to the global masses. And a viable treatment for the novel coronavirus couldn’t come soon enough, considering more than 2 million individuals have been infected with the virus across the world and the death count surpassed 130,000 at the time of writing.
While fewer startups broke into the global AI for drug discovery market near the end of 2019, we think the pandemic will reignite activity in the space as firms race to find a viable treatment. Thirteen new AI for drug discovery startups were set up globally in 2019 — a dropoff from the 25 established in 2018, and a drastic slowdown from the 37 formed in 2017, according to an analysis from AI startup BenchSci.
And not only was the number of novel startups dwindling pre-coronavirus, but so was the pace of funding growth: Startups leveraging AI for drug development raked in $1.4 billion in 2019, up 52% from the $921.5 million they earned in 2018 — that’s compared with the 125% year-over-year growth in funding the space witnessed from 2017 to 2018, per BenchSci.
While the emergence of new startups and global funding in the AI for drug discovery market dropped toward the end of 2019, we expect to see investments in the space climb more dramatically throughout the course of the pandemic as startups across the globe turn to the power of AI to rapidly sift through, aggregate, and structure vast sums of clinical data in hopes of discovering a viable treatment for the novel coronavirus.
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