Novo gets serious about AI-guided drug design

How Novo is using AI and its restructured research units to drive innovation

Novo Nordisk A/S is fashioning its R&D makeover to integrate artificial intelligence across its drug discovery and development process, after a pilot program delivered the cost and time savings the pharma was looking for.

In 2019, Novo will redirect the budget for new lab space and equipment into computers and software. In September, the company trimmed its R&D workforce by 400 heads, primarily by slimming down its medicinal chemistry teams. It will retain chemists who work in data science.

According to EVP and CSO Mads Thomsen, the budget redirect involves about DKK400-DKK500 million ($60.4-$75.5 million) -- about 3% of total R&D spending. The workforce reduction is about 1% of the total employee base. Novo would not disclose its R&D headcount.

Novo follows Pfizer Inc., AstraZeneca plc and Novartis AG in adopting AI-guided drug design, with the goal of improving efficiency. Numerous other pharmas are evaluating the use of AI-assisted drug discovery through partnerships, the most recent being a Dec. 6 deal between Merck KGaA and Cyclica Inc.

Based on its pilot, Novo thinks it can cut in half the time and cost of drug discovery and lead optimization. It also expects the software tools to improve selection of patient populations for clinical trials compared with traditional methods.

This is the latest in a series of moves that Novo has made over the last two years to remake its R&D in the face of growing downward pricing pressures on its diabetes

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