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Alphabet is Launching Isomorphic Labs For Drug Discovery

Alphabet is launching a new company called Isomorphic Labs that will use AI methods for drug discovery, Google’s parent company announced Thursday. It’ll build off of the work done by DeepMind, another Alphabet subsidiary that has done ground-breaking work using AI to predict the structure of proteins.

The new company, called Isomorphic Laboratories, will leverage that success to build tools that can help identify new pharmaceuticals. DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis will also serve as the CEO for Isomorphic, but the two companies will stay separate and collaborate occasionally, a spokesperson said.

DeepMind’s learning systems have shown a particular affinity for generality or knowledge transfer — that is, having a structure that is capable of being repurposed for very different tasks. And if, as AlphaFold’s success suggests, biological systems are a good match for this kind of simulation and analysis, Hassabis’s assessment of the company’s wider capabilities may prove true.

Very little was revealed about the company in its debut blog post and a very general accompanying FAQ. The aim of the company is to “build a computational platform to understand biological systems from first principles to discover new ways to treat disease.” There are, of course, a few assumptions in that founding statement, most prominently that it’s possible to computationally simulate biological systems in a matter conducive to drug discovery.

Isomorphic will try to build models that can predict how drugs will interact with the body, Hassabis told Stat News. It could leverage DeepMind’s work on protein structure to figure out how multiple proteins might interact with each other. The company may not develop its own drugs but instead sell its models. It will focus on developing partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, a spokesperson said in a statement to The Verge.

Several large companies have been formed and funded with hundreds of millions of dollars to pursue very similar goals over the last five years or so, and there has been no visible revolution or famous AI-discovered wonder drug for a previously untreatable disease. It is clear these AI systems are not miracle factories, just parts in a long and complex process that still involves a great deal of time, money and test tubes.

If so, it won’t be for a while. Even with the running start provided by DeepMind’s AI research (which will remain separate but may be shared), Isomorphic is essentially starting from scratch on this problem. It’s hiring up a “world-class multidisciplinary team” and perhaps in a year or two we may see the first inklings of results issuing from the company’s ambitions.

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