Poolbeg Pharma: Using AI to prepare for the next pandemic

2 minutes read

No-one is likely to forget the tragic events of 2020 and one company leading efforts to prepare for the next pandemic is Poolbeg Pharma. Optimum Strategic Communications’ Richard Staines interviewed CEO Jeremy Skillington to find the latest insights. 

Discussions are not about whether another pandemic will happen, but when, as a number of factors converge to make another global outbreak more likely. 

Poolbeg Pharma’s CEO, Jeremy Skillington cited concerns over influenza, which continues to produce new iterations with strains potentially jumping from animal species, such as birds, into humans.

He said: “There is always that kind of risk where these viruses mutate and go from an animal incubation into humans.” 

Poolbeg is working on a drug that aims to block some of the worst effects of influenza, aiming to neutralise the over-reaction from the body’s immune system known as a “cytokine storm” that produces many of the ill effects following a flu infection. 

The drug candidate, known as POLB 001, could potentially be used in a pandemic to alleviate the worst symptoms and save lives. 

Based in London and Dublin, Poolbeg is one of many companies that is exploiting the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to make drug research nimbler. 

Increasing processing speeds and computing power has made it possible to find drug candidates in much quicker timeframes, allowing for a faster global response to any emerging pathogen. 

“This is where AI has hit a very interesting crossroads, where we can apply supercomputers to understanding biology…understanding diseases at a molecular level, and from there coming up with new drugs and treatments,” said Skillington. 

Computing power is able to show precise protein structures, giving scientists greater insight into how to shape potential drugs to match targets. 

One of Poolbeg’s AI partnerships is with CytoReason, which has allowed the company to fast-track development of other drugs in its pipeline. 

Israel-based CytoReason has been using Poolbeg’s data from human challenge trials that track physiological data from a patient after a healthy young patient is deliberately infected with flu. 

CytoReason has been analysing the six gigabytes of data from each patient on the trial to try and identify the drivers of disease and genes that are upregulated and could be either driving disease or helping patients recover. 

At the end of June, Poolbeg announced it has identified a number of targets that it could exploit in research. 

Poolbeg spun out of viral challenge research organisation hVivo in 2021. It took four years for the latter to identify p38 MAP kinase as a target for influenza research, whereas the collaboration with CytoReason took 15 months to identify its targets – demonstrating the faster pace of AI-driven research. 

“It (AI) decreases risk, decreases costs and increases probability. It’s all about speed getting products into the clinic,” said Skillington. 

But there are challenges with AI, including inherent scepticism. Scientists need to see the data to change their opinions. 

Skillington said that big pharma, often criticised for being too slow to adopt new technologies, is by and large convinced by the benefits of AI. 

“They are very deliberate in their decision making but once they make a decision to jump in, they are all in,” he said. 

To listen to the full interview or to discover past episodes of Optimum Perspectives Podcast, just click the link.

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