Boehringer Ingelheim taps into Lifebit's AI for global disease surveillance

If a Big Pharma’s entire R&D enterprise can be likened to a cruise ship, an unwieldy carrier of thousands of people, you might not see it turn fast enough to meet new hazards on the horizon—but give it an accurate map and enough warning, and it will sail right through.

That’s what drugmaker Boehringer Ingelheim plans to do in an ambitious project with artificial intelligence developer Lifebit, which aims to use natural language processing to help chart a course through the world’s torrents of data and track new outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Using AI programs to quickly digest international scientific publications along with real-world data from other open sources, the companies hope to establish the prevalence of any particular disease and discover whether it has begun to spread across national borders—allowing Boehringer to set its research priorities accordingly.

Though their efforts will begin with animal health surveillance, Lifebit aims to provide a platform that can study the epidemiology of just about any disease. This would include not just respiratory infections similar to COVID-19 but potentially widespread human conditions such as diabetes, obesity and anxiety.

“Even when the system tracks diseases for animals, at the same time we’re tracking diseases for humans, because a lot of these diseases that first appear in animals can be transferred to humans,” Lifebit CEO Maria Chatzou Dunford, Ph.D., said in an interview. “But we will be expanding fast, because the system is fully agnostic.”

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The new project follows a long working partnership with Boehringer, she said, but the COVID-19 pandemic renewed the importance of being able to surveil the world for newly emerging diseases in real time.

And Lifebit doesn't plan to stop at pathogen identification. It'll also provide pharma researchers with a view into what drugs could end up beating a detected disease—as well as whether there’s room and time for Boehringer to develop a potential competitor itself, re-task an existing compound from its portfolio or acquire a new asset outright.

“Not only can they see what diseases are, let's say, trending, but they can see where they are deploying their sales forces and different drugs, and understand what drugs are covering this disease,” Chatzou Dunford said. “They can understand if there is an opportunity for them to create a new drug, or if this is going to be a saturated market, with little differentiation between existing drugs.”

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Once the decision to chase a particular disease has been made, Lifebit’s platform can also support target discovery research by collating scientific literature and genomics data. 

“Within this cruise ship, you don't need to steer and change the whole course—you have many, many activities happening within that ship,” Chatzou Dunford said. “There are many resources that can be prioritized or deprioritized, based on what they are doing.”

“Boehringer Ingelheim is not just interested in looking to new diseases, but is already working on this in their R&D pipelines—and they want to see what’s emerging in the world, and what are the drugs, the targets and so on,” she said. “So they can steer not necessarily the whole boat, but the groups within the boat, and that can give them lots of agility.”