UK-based artificial intelligence (AI) drug discovery company Exscientia has received a $4.2m two-year grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to apply its two Centaur platforms to three global health challenges: malaria, tuberculosis (TB), and non-hormonal contraception.

Exscientia’s AI platforms – Centaur Biologist and Centaur Chemist – will be leveraged to identify new next-generation targets and leads for these unmet needs in infectious disease and family planning.

The company’s CEO Andrew Hopkins noted: “Exscientia is committed to applying AI to deliver transformational drugs for the benefit of all patients. We are delighted to receive financial support from the foundation to develop much-needed first-in-class therapies to these disease areas to address key global health needs.”

Deep dive into the Centaur platforms

Exscientia portfolio manager Dr Denise Barrault explains that Centaur Biologist focuses on “identifying and quantifying new targets…for new therapies”. Target identification is one of the biggest challenges in drug discovery.

The platform leverages “large data sets from the literature, large-scale repositories, like genetic repositories, and other relevant data, including privately owned data if we can access it,” Barrault says. It applies deep learning algorithms to these data sets to pull out promising targets for a particular disease.

Centaur Chemist, Barrault notes, is used to actually develop new drugs using AI algorithms and machine learning. “The aim of the Centaur Chemist platform is to deliver small molecule drugs that have a high chance of success in the clinic”, adds Barrault.

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She explains that Exscientia can design various features into novel treatments, including optimising their activity against certain targets or phenotypes, reducing toxicity and developing bispecific drugs against two targets.

Tackling unmet needs in malaria, TB and contraceptives

“The big picture is when you combine these two platforms and apply them to a major global health challenges you really get the full benefits of Exscientia,” says Barrault. “You can really open new targets and find new drug regimes for disease and hopefully cure more patients in the world.”

Malaria and TB are leading causes of death worldwide, a situation that is compounded by inadequate treatments marred by drug resistance. Barrault notes “by using a bispecific approach [which Centaur Chemist can do], we can almost reduce the chances of resistance to zero”.

Family planning has a crucial role to play in reducing maternal, infant and child mortality. “The project for non-hormonal contraceptives is really about unlocking these new opportunities for women and giving them new choices to control their fertility without the perceived side effects and health risks associated with hormonal contraceptives,” according to Barrault. Exscientia will be applying a single-target approach for the non-hormonal contraception project.

Barrault notes Exscientia has been talking to the Gates Foundation for many years and it became “very clear there were projects where it would make sense for us to collaborate”.

“Our platforms are disease-agnostic so we can apply them to any problem,” states Barrault. But this grant gives the company an “opportunity to explore disease areas we wouldn’t necessarily pursue on our own”, and therefore make a real difference in low-income countries to alleviate poverty and disease.

The two-year $4.2m grant also grants Exscientia access to databases, biological assets and expertise from the Gates Foundation. The partners hope that by combining this with Exscientia’s AI Centaur platforms, new therapies to address these unmet needs can be developed efficiently and reach patients as quickly as possible.

Barrault is hopeful that within the two-year grant period Exscientia will have “proved the platform is worth its while in [these] disease areas” and the drugs will be well on their way to the clinic.