Novartis to put AI on every employee's desk through Microsoft partnership

Novartis is looking to put artificial intelligence tools on the desktops of each of its research associates, and it's tapping Microsoft to do it.

A new five-year collaboration between the two companies will help the Big Pharma establish an AI innovation lab alongside joint research projects at multiple international centers run by both companies, spanning research, clinical trials and manufacturing.

“As Novartis continues evolving into a focused medicines company powered by advanced therapy platforms and data science, alliances like this will help us deliver on our purpose to reimagine medicine to improve and extend patients’ lives,” Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan said in a statement.

“Pairing our deep knowledge of human biology and medicine with Microsoft’s leading expertise in AI could transform the way we discover and develop medicines for the world,” Narasimhan added.

The partnership will start with three specific projects: implementing AI-based approaches to help personalize treatments for macular degeneration and irreversible blindness, including through image segmentation and analysis; increasing the efficiency of cell and gene therapy manufacturing, starting with treatments for acute lymphoblastic leukemia such as Kymriah; and expediting Novartis’ processes for designing and generating new therapeutic molecules.

The innovation lab itself will serve as “Novartis’ engine and go-to place for AI,” Shahram Ebadollahi, global head of data science and AI, told FierceMedTech. The lab will provide a place to innovate, experiment and scale up AI-based solutions for adoption by the company as a whole, he said. 

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These activities will take place in co-working centers at Novartis’ campuses in Switzerland and Ireland, as well as at Microsoft’s research lab in the U.K.

“Together, we aim to address some of the biggest challenges facing the life sciences industry today and bring AI capabilities to every Novartis employee so they can unlock new insights as they work to discover new medicines and reduce patient costs,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

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Microsoft’s AI solutions will also aim to translate the drugmaker’s large clinical and scientific data sets into information Novartis staff can easily query from their desks, even without specialized backgrounds in data science.

“AI empowerment is a core element of this alliance. Its aim is to integrate AI-enabled insights into the workflow of how our associates do their work,” said Ebadollahi. “In order to use AI at scale in any organization, it is important to enable the ‘citizen data scientists’ with the power of AI.” 

AI-based tools and machine learning models will be injected into Novartis' various workflows, culling data behind the scenes to build a broader picture of the topic at hand, and then summarizing and presenting relevant data to aid in daily decisionmaking within the company, he said. 

“Because many of these advances are based on the ability to analyze huge amounts of data in new ways, developing new drugs has become as much an AI and data science problem as it is a biology and chemistry problem,” wrote Peter Lee, corporate vice president for Microsoft Healthcare, in a company blog post. “This means companies like Novartis need to become data science companies to an extent never seen before.”

One of the priority areas within Novartis is a project called data42—a machine learning platform designed to mine the company's silos of data for patterns, targets and biomarkers across its R&D programs.  

Novartis is also working on developing tools for remotely conducted clinical trials, Ebadollahi said, by using digital solutions to access underserved patient populations, as well as building digital therapeutics. 

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional information from Novartis.