Discovering and developing new medicines is complex and expensive. Scientists explore and select what they think are the most relevant disease mechanisms, then design and test promising candidate molecules that interact with the selected mechanism. Finally, they organise patient studies and evaluate their results. All of that may take years and cost billions of euros with high attrition rates. The digital transformation will revolutionise these processes in line with the motto – better, faster, further. Three examples illustrate the changing nature of research at Boehringer Ingelheim.
A rtificial intelligence-supported software, virtual molecular models and open innovation are currently finding their way into Boehringer Ingelheim’s research laboratories. The goal is to develop better medicines. On the basis of highly precise data, scientists at Boehringer Ingelheim can aim higher right from the start: with an exact hypothesis on a certain disease mechanism that takes into account all relevant data from global research results. A smart software makes this kind of precision possible. Computers read the ever-growing flood of data from experiments, external research teams’ articles and the values reported in statistics portals in a matter of seconds, evaluate them and reveal links.
Digital processes also help Boehringer Ingelheim researchers to be faster, since drug development often takes too long using analogue processes. Several years can elapse from an idea via initial experiments, prototypes and patient studies to a medicine that is ready for the market. In the worst-case scenario, that may cost human lives since life-saving drugs will not be available in time for treatments.
In addition, digitalisation also takes our scientists further: through open innovation. Digital platforms make new connections and collaborations possible. The borders between internal research teams and external experts are increasingly porous.
“Digital technologies are boosting value creation in our research processes. They help us to identify relevant disease mechanisms, to discover promising molecules and to explore the unexpected far beyond current horizons – through open innovation. The time, quality and knowledge we gain thereby will above all benefit our patients worldwide,” explains Dr Michel Pairet, Member of the Board of Managing Directors with responsibility for the Innovation Unit.
Better through merging complex data
Before starting a drug discovery project, researchers need to identify the most relevant disease mechanisms they want to address. For this, Boehringer Ingelheim is developing the NTC Studio application in a pilot project. The acronym stands for “New Therapeutic Concepts”.
NTC merges, that is to say combines and analyses, data from the widest range of internal and external sources. “The volume of information that is relevant for our research comes from all over the world and increases every day,” says the project leader, Dr Jan Kriegl. “Thanks to NTC Studio, researchers have access to many different sources and are always up- to-date with the current state of research.”
The application links results from internal research projects, content from scientific publications and patents, and clinical study data. The programme scours this information for terms which researchers are seeking, groups them and enables the researchers to detect unknown connections from this merged perspective.
In addition, NTC Studio provides the possibility of effective collaboration with researchers who are working, or have worked, on similar projects. Combining the internal know-how of many individual researchers makes it possible over time to build up a valuable fundament of knowledge.
“Digital technologies are boosting value creation in our research processes.”
Dr. Michel Pairet,
Member of the Board of Managing Directors with responsibility for the Innovation Unit
Faster thanks to artificial intelligence
Molecules from a machine
A strand of molecules with many branches develops on a smartphone screen. Chemical structures appear, with properties and values listed below – this is research data. The scientist must now decide: should he click on the green box and accept the suggestion? Or click on the red box and reject it? If the researcher accepts the suggestion, he can continue to work on the molecule displayed. If he rejects it, he will instantly receive a new suggestion, generated by means of artificial intelligence. ADAM is the name of this application, which is intended to make life easier for those who develop medicines.
The abbreviation stands for “advanced design assistant for molecules” and denotes the most advanced digital assistant to date within research at Boehringer Ingelheim. Different digital assistants have been helping researchers in processing complex data for some time now.
Each assistant knows the relevant molecules and data points from all of Boehringer Ingelheim’s current research projects and also has access to historical project data. Within a few seconds, the assistants inform scientists about what is known about a molecule variant at Boehringer Ingelheim, without users having to search for it every time. ADAM constantly updates its algorithms with new information and data from countless current and previous company projects. Use of this know-how raises efficiency in pharmaceutical research. ADAM thereby takes the interaction between man and machine to a completely new level.
“The biological processes in the human body are highly complex,” stresses Dr Matthias Zentgraf, of Boehringer Ingelheim’s Research Department. “But there are also frequently recurring questions in drug research. Thanks to digital assistants, we will be able to work much more efficiently here in the near future. ADAM already offers a foretaste of it.”
See what I see: Through others's eyesResearchers at Boehringer Ingelheim are working on new medicines worldwide, across national frontiers and continents. With the remote app “XpertEye”, a researcher in the USA wearing smartglasses can show colleagues in a laboratory in Germany what he is working on, and vice versa. The app enables remote collaboration of an activity – such as repairing equipment, or data analysis. The advantages are obvious: instead of having to travel to the other side of the world to see colleagues, issues in research projects can be resolved by means of electronic communication. Not only is this more sustainable, it also saves time and cost.
Remote collaboration tools such as “XpertEye” help to resolve specific questions faster and cost-effective.
Further by means of open Innovation
Designed by us – unlocked by you
Boehringer Ingelheim’s new open innovation portal “opnMe.com” was launched to enable cooperation in pharmaceutical research far beyond company boundaries. A courier might ring the bell at a university in North America, for instance. Inside the parcel are small tubes carrying some of the most valuable molecules from Boehringer Ingelheim’s research organisation: high-quality compounds developed in-house and patented. The American scientist has ordered them, free of charge, on the opnMe.com portal: here, the company offers 30 molecules that would probably have been kept strictly under lock and key in predigital times.
On opnMe, however, any scientist can order with only a few clicks molecules that are of interest for their own research. Everywhere in the world, they receive them free of charge within a week and can start their own experiments without having to fear infringements of existing patents. Over the past few months, more than 1,700 compounds were delivered to 29 different countries. External researchers thus become accomplices of the company’s inhouse drug research.
“opnMe enables us to learn exciting new things about disease biology, at the same time improving our scientific reputation and excellence in drug discovery and development,” says Dr Florian Montel, a medicinal chemist and head of opnMe at Boehringer Ingelheim. “They also demonstrate to the scientific community that Boehringer Ingelheim is open, honest and fair in the field of research accelerating the discovery of new medicines”.
OpnMe.com allows also to commence joint research projects. Scientists interested in accessing them for their research submit an application with a unique and novel research hypothesis. The proposals with the highest potential will be pursued together with scientists from Boehringer Ingelheim. So far, three of these molecules have been offered on opnMe – and Boehringer Ingelheim has received a total of 275 applications. “We have selected the best projects from these and made the molecules available to researchers. As a result, we have started seven new collaborations,” explains Dr Markus Koester, who is in charge of relations with researchers worldwide via opnMe.com.
Collaborative projects in the field of cardiometabolic diseases, infectious diseases and diseases of the respiratory tract are currently underway. Another exciting call will be launched soon: for the first time a pharmaceutical company will offer a lung-specific adeno-associated virus (AAV) to test new genetic mechanisms for treating respiratory diseases. “This will support our ambition towards scientific leadership in AAV-based gene therapy,” Koester adds.
Through the company opening up, scientists at Boehringer Ingelheim can tap into the knowledge of scientific experts worldwide. According to Montel, opnMe.com goes beyond the frontiers in drug discovery and will eventually accelerate the discovery of next generation medicines for patients in need.
Despite all technological advances, however, one thing will remain irreplaceable in the future: the tireless curiosity, creativity and the genius of enthusiastic scientists.
well-characterised molecules are available on opnMe
applications for “Molecules for collaboration”
compounds shipped since launch of opnMe
Brass: Risks and side effectsWhen a drug is on the market, Boehringer Ingelheim medical scientists attend to pharmacovigilance. They collect data on possible side effects and thus assess risks with medicines.
They will soon be provided with a digital assistant called BRASS. The experts can enter their own experiences and assessments as well as background information into the application. BRASS can then use various analytical methods to independently develop new findings. In addition, BRASS can also place data in the context of biomedical expertise. However, the decision as to which conclusions to draw from the safety data still lies with the medical profession. Should certain risks be mentioned in the package insert? Are the instructions for use to be supplemented? Although artificial intelligence supports humans in many areas, it cannot replace them.
Learning algorithms help to better understand possible side effects and risks with medicines.