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Aramco-backed Insilico opens new lab to ‘extend human life’

Coat, Clothing, Person Suppliued/Insilico
Insilico chief executive Alex Zhavoronkov says the region can become a 'big player in drug discovery'
  • Biotech firm opens Abu Dhabi R&D centre
  • It wants to bring its AI-driven drug discovery platform to region
  • Global pharma increasingly using advanced tech to develop medicines

Insilico Medicine, the Hong Kong-based Aramco-backed health technology company, opened its eighth global laboratory this week at Abu Dhabi’s Masdar complex.

The lab aims to support Middle East efforts to find new drugs that prolong human life. “My hope for the region is that it realises it can be a big player in drug discovery,” Insilico Medicine’s chief executive Alex Zhavoronkov told AGBI.

“The Middle East has never developed a drug that is being used all over the world. It’s not Switzerland, or the US, or the UK – there is no culture of pharmaceutical drug discovery here. But using AI [artificial intelligence] and robotics, it can leapfrog that cultural and industry gap.

“Our hope is that [Insilico] is seen as a useful player in the region should governments become serious about drug discovery, and once they start selecting the most impactful companies to work with, they will pick us,” he said.

Insilico uses AI systems in chemistry, biology and pharmaceutical research to help discover, develop and test drugs that fight cancer, cystic fibrosis, anaemia, kidney disease and other conditions.

“Our mission is very clear: to extend human life,” its Canadian-Latvian chief executive said.

Last year, the company received $95 million in a Series D round led by Prosperity7 Ventures, a $1 billion venture capital fund of Aramco Ventures, part of oil giant Saudi Aramco.

Other backers include AI, biopharma and tech investors Deerfield, Warburg Pincus, Pavilion Capital, Sequoia, OrbiMed Healthcare Fund Management.

Pharma firms using Insilico software in their own research and development (R&D) include Sanofi, with which Insilico signed a $1.2 billion research collaboration deal in November.  

In January Insilico announced positive results from the phase one clinical trial of an AI-designed drug for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease. It is the first AI-discovered drug to be entered into clinical trials, and phase two trials will start this year, the company said.

Also last month Insilico opened Life Star, a sixth-generation (zero human intervention) robotics lab for drug discovery in Suzhou, China. It said it hopes that “by eliminating human bias and trusting AI to run the lab, it can achieve better results”.

This week, Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) named Insilico among three tech companies (also Ubisoft and AAICO), with which its acting director general Abdulla Abdul Aziz Al Shamsi said it will work to “develop and commercialise new technology and products in the UAE that benefit the world”. 

Insilico’s Abu Dhabi centre, within the United Nation’s International Renewable Energy Agency office, is part of its strategy to scale up operations in the Middle East and Africa – a region Zhavoronkov says has the will and funding to grow its pharma AI sector with the right expertise.

The region’s AI in drug discovery market is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 47.1 percent to reach $548.7 million by 2029, according to Data Bridge Market Research. 

Globally, the market was valued at $897.6 million in 2021 and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 29.4 percent to reach $9.1 billion in 2030, according to Grand View Research. 

People, Person, WomanSupplied/Insilico
ADIO acting director general Abdulla Abdul Aziz Al Shamsi (second from right) said it will work with Insilico to ‘develop and commercialise new technology and products in the UAE that benefit the world’. Picture: Supplied/Insilico

Ultimately, Insilico wants to be a key player in the global race to extend human life – a concept known as “longevity”, which GCC countries including Saudi Arabia and the UAE have begun exploring

The Gulf Longevity Initiative is a think tank set up by London-based advanced analytics firm Deep Knowledge Group. It brings together stakeholders in the $33 trillion longevity industry, all looking at how technology can help fight challenges of ageing by improving public health and extending lifespans. 

Zhavoronkov wants Insilico to be seen as a valuable contributor to the region’s longevity sector.

“We are focused on [tackling] ageing and disease. Everything we do is to fight death, which means our mission is essentially the opposite of death. If you extend the life of every human being by just one year with a drug, you generate eight billion additional human life years,” he said. 

Insilico is also expanding its AI capabilities from drug R&D to other areas, including green energy and agriculture – both priority areas for the fuel-intensive Middle East. The company is working with Aramco to test sustainable fuels. 

“Many of our algorithms also work to minimise CO2 output. The chemistry is the same and it’s easier to make it work there than on human tissue,” Zhavoronkov explained.

“We can work on materials’ longevity – understanding the chemical composition of certain materials to ensure they last longer.” 

Insilico also wants to expand its expertise in quantum computing. “This will be the next wave [of technology], trust me on that,” Zhavoronkov said. 

Given its ambitions, he hopes the new location will help Insilico attract the highest calibre scientists.

“Abu Dhabi is one of the best places to be. You enjoy individual tax free status, the time zone is perfect for global communication across our sites in the US, Canada, and Greater China, and the government subsidies are substantial so you can pay employees more.” 

Insilico plans to grow its Abu Dhabi team from 40 people (90 percent of which are scientists), to 70 this year. It has recently snapped up what Zhavoronkov calls “AI refugees” from Ukraine and Russia – talented individuals who no longer want to live in their countries.

“People who know how to work in this area are extremely rare,” said Zhavoronkov. “You need people who understand AI and at the same time drug discovery, and there are just a few thousand of them in the world, so hiring can be very difficult.” 

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