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DeepMind spins out new Alphabet company focused on drug discovery

November 4, 2021, 10:34 PM UTC

DeepMind, the London-based artificial intelligence research company that is owned by Google-parent Alphabet, is spinning off a new, for-profit Alphabet venture dedicated to drug discovery.

The new company, called Isomorphic Laboratories, will be based in the U.K. and be led “in its initial phase” by Demis Hassabis, DeepMind’s co-founder and chief executive, according to a blog post Hassabis authored. He said he would continue to serve as DeepMind’s CEO as well.

The company will build on an A.I. technology pioneered by DeepMind, called AlphaFold, that can predict the structure of proteins. This information is one important piece in the design of many new drugs. DeepMind’s ability to accurately predict protein shapes based only on genetic sequences for those proteins solved a 50-year-old challenge in computational biology.

Hassabis said that Isomorphic would build on this breakthrough “to reimagine the entire drug discovery process from the ground up with an A.I.-first approach.”

“We believe that the foundational use of cutting edge computational and AI methods can help scientists take their work to the next level, and massively accelerate the drug discovery process,” he wrote.

DeepMind has already made its AlphaFold system freely available for researchers to download and use. This summer it also published AlphaFold’s predicted molecular structures for hundreds of thousands of proteins, including all of the proteins in the human body, and all of those in 20 other animal species frequently used in biological research, such as mice and zebrafish, as well as the parasite that causes malaria and the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. It has promised to eventually publish predictions for more than 100 million proteins for which genetic sequences are known.

Nonetheless, Alphabet’s move into for-profit drug discovery with Isomorphic may raise concerns among academic researchers about whether they will continue to have access to AlphaFold’s predictions, as well as any future breakthroughs in using A.I. in biology that either DeepMind or Isomorphic may make. For instance, very similar technology to AlphaFold could be used to predict interaction between multiple proteins, the structure of RNA, or the molecular interactions that underpin biological functions such as metabolism.

Isomorphic is likely to create waves among biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies focused on drug discovery. There are dozens of startups now using A.I. and machine learning to try to find new therapies, many of them with drugs now in early-stage human clinical trials, including Exscientia, Benevolent A.I., and Healx, in the U.K., Insilico in Hong Kong, and Recursion Labs in the U.S. But few have the bench of machine learning talent that DeepMind has or the access to almost unlimited computing power that being part of Alphabet brings.

Isomorphic will become the third major Alphabet company dedicated to some aspect of life sciences. The others include Verily, which is researching a variety of healthcare technology, and Calico, which is focused on anti-aging. Earlier this year, Google shut down a division it had created dedicated to medicine and healthcare, called Google Health. That division, which Google created in 2018, had absorbed a DeepMind unit that was also focused on applying A.I. to medicine.

Hassabis said that Isomorphic is looking to hire “a world-class multidisciplinary team,” including experts in A.I., biology, medicinal chemistry, biophysics, and engineering, brought together in a highly collaborative and innovative environment.”

He also said he had decided to name the new company Isomorphic because of his belief that there may be an underlying structure between biology and information science. In science, the word isomorphic is used to refer to things that share a common form or relationship.

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