AI collaboration for COVID19 trials

Trinity College alumnus Justin Stebbing is part of a team that has used artificial intelligence technology to identify a possible coronavirus treatment.

BenevolentAI, a London-based startup, has used AI technology tools to rapidly scan scientific literature in search of information related to the virus. It quickly identified the rheumatoid arthritis drug baricitinib as a possible treatment with dual activity of preventing viral entry into cells and ameliorating the aggressive host response, the so-called cytokine storm.

In collaboration with Professor Stebbing, the company published a letter in The Lancet describing how they used AI to identify baricitinib’s potential to treat COVID-19, which were subsequently followed up in further Lancet publications. The data described by the group initiated a number of studies looking at the potential of the drug when given to patients were initiated; these included a pilot study in Lombardy, the epicentre of the pandemic at the time. The computer predictions were verified in laboratory settings through work with Sweden’s Karolinksa Institute and in London at Imperial College, and with the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly.

Thanks to the study, the drug is now part of an accelerated clinical trial with the National Institutes of Health and Eli Lily. The study will investigate the efficacy and safety of baricitinib as a potential treatment for hospitalized patients diagnosed with COVID-19, beginning this month in the U.S. with a planned expansion to additional sites including Europe and Asia.

Over only two days, a small team used BenevolentAI’s tools to delve into millions of scientific documents in search of information related to the virus. The tools relied on one of the newest developments in artificial intelligence — ‘universal language models’ that can teach themselves to understand written and spoken language by analyzing thousands of old books, Wikipedia articles and other digital text.

Professor Stebbing says: ‘We normally talk about “bench to bedside”; this is about “computer to bench to bedside”. AI technology makes higher-order correlations that a human wouldn’t be capable of making, even with all the time in the world. It links datasets that a human wouldn’t be able to link.’

Published: 18 May 2020

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