It was early one morning in 1996 when Andrew Hopkins, who was a PhD student in biophysics at Oxford University, had a brain wave while returning home from a late-night lab meeting.
He was trying to find molecules to fight HIV and better understand drug resistance.
“I remember this shocking idea that there had to be a better way to discover drugs other than the complicated and expensive method everyone was following,” he says. “Why can’t we design an automated approach to drug design that uses all the information in parallel so that even a humble PhD student can create a drug? This idea really stuck in my mind. I remember the exact moment to this day. This was the genesis of the idea that eventually became Exscientia.”
It was to prove a profitable brilliant idea. Hopkins founded the company in 2012 as an affiliate of the University of Dundee, where he was a professor. It uses artificial intelligence (AI) systems, which are trained to mimic human creativity, to develop new medicines. This involves the use of Automated computer algorithms for sifting through large data sets To design new compounds that can treat diseases, and to help select the right patients for each treatment.
family He is married and has a 10-year-old daughter. He met his wife, Eva Hopkins Navratilova, at Pfizer. Its business, Kinetic Discovery, merged with his company to create Experimental Biology Laboratories at Exscientia.
education Dwr-y-Felin inclusive and Neath College in South Wales; Degree in Chemistry in Manchester. PhD in Molecular Biophysics at Oxford.
last vacation The Czech Republic visits his wife’s family on Easter.
Best advice given to him “My dad used to work in a factory. He told me, ‘Get a good education and get a job you enjoy. It’s worth an extra six thousand a year. And I definitely got a job that I enjoy.”
Biggest Job Mistake “It is too early to tell.” Miles Davis quotes: “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play next that makes it right or wrong.”
Overused words “Basically” ; “Heart of the matter”.
how to relax Reading and walking the dogs. “I am a book lover. I dive into books to relax.”
THis approach cuts short drug development time drastically. For the Exscientia pipeline, Hopkins says, it typically took 12 to 15 months from initiating a project to identify a candidate drug, compared to four and a half years in the conventional drug industry.
The average cost of developing a drug is $2 billion, according to Deloitte’s latest pharma report, and many drugs fail — the failure rate is 90% for drugs in early clinical studies (where they are tested in humans).
Pharmaceutical companies typically make 2,500 compounds to test against a specific disease, while AI is enabling Oxford-based Exscientia to narrow that number to about 250, Hopkins says. “It’s a much more systematic approach.”
Last fall, the Welsh scholar became one of Britain’s richest entrepreneurs, with a paper fortune of £400m after the company made $2.9 billion for the first time on the Nasdaq stock market in New York, making it one of Britain’s largest biotechnology companies. Hopkins’ stake of about 16% is now worth £170m, as the share price has lost 60% of its value in a bloodbath of Wall Street stocks.
Exscientia has been part of a transatlantic trend challenging government attempts to build a biotech force in the UK. Abcam, a leading Cambridge antibody company, recently announced that it is moving its stock market listing from the UK to the US. “We are a British company. We chose to be in Oxford because we could attract global talent,” Hopkins says. “But to be seen as a global company, we included us in the global technology index, which is the Nasdaq. What we have now is an incredibly international shareholder base from all over the world.”
The company has come up with the first drug designed for artificial intelligence to enter clinical trials – a treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder in partnership with Japan’s Sumitomo, although Sumitomo later decided not to go ahead with it. The Japanese company is currently studying another drug developed by Exscientia, to treat Alzheimer’s disease psychosis, in early human trials.
Hopkins, 50, fell in love with science thanks to an inspirational chemistry teacher. He’s worked as a scientist since he was 16, when he spent a stint in industrial chemistry at steel mills in Port Talbot in South Wales, which he says taught him the benefits of automation in increasing productivity.
He spent nearly a decade at US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, working on a “data warehouse” project that led to some of the first applications of machine learning in the pharmaceutical industry, with results Posted in temper nature in 2006.
During the next five years at the University of Dundee, he did further research on the application of data mining and machine learning to drug discovery. “Being a professor is actually one of the best jobs in the world,” he says, and give him the freedom to research at length AI methods. He maintains links with the university, where he holds the position of Chair Emeritus of Medical Informatics in the College of Life Sciences.
Exscientia (which means “of knowledge” in Latin) soon moved to the Schrödinger Building in the Oxford Science Park, and now employs 450 people worldwide, from Vienna to Boston, Miami and Osaka, split evenly between AI engineering, chemistry and biology.
It is building a new robotics lab in Milton Park, near Oxford, focused on automating chemistry and biology to accelerate drug development and its stated goal is “drugs designed by artificial intelligence, made by robots.” Other drug companies have also introduced some automation into their processes, but the lab technology is generally similar to what it was when he was a student in the 1990s, Hopkins says.
The company is involved in 30 projects, some in partnership with major pharmaceutical companies including France’s Sanofi and US company Bristol-Myers Squibb. It is also working with Oxford University to develop drugs that target nerve inflammation to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Among the company’s solo projects, cancer drugs for solid tumors are about to enter early clinical trials.
Exscientia is also working on a broader coronavirus pill to compete with Paxlovid, the Covid-19 treatment made by former Hopkins company Pfizer. This work is funded by A $1.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which acquired a stake in Exscientia. Other investors in the company include BMS, Celgene (now a subsidiary of BMS) and Germany’s Evotec, as well as Japan’s Softbank, US fund manager BlackRock and life science investor Novo Holdings.
Hopkins says the team has identified a set of molecules that could work as a broader treatment for Covid-19, new mutations and other coronaviruses, and that there will be more news later this year. The company’s goal is to have a low-cost pill that can be distributed globally and quickly deliver to people who get sick to prevent serious illness and hospitalization. Covid-19 infections are increasing again in 110 countries, and the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has warned that the epidemic is not yet over.
Pharmaceutical companies have started using artificial intelligence in recent years. AstraZeneca is investing heavily in it for its entire R&D infrastructure, and GSK has built an AI team of 120 engineers, with plans to reach 160 next year, making it the largest in-house team in the industry.
AI systems require a lot of computing power and massive data sets. Their use should increase the number of new drugs approved each year — usually from 40 to 50 in the United States — to many others. Hopkins confidently predicts: “This is how all drugs of the future will be designed. In the next decade, this technology will become ubiquitous.”