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The business of using AI in medicine for a faster cure

27 January 2021

How is a Canterbury Business School lecturer with a background in computer science and artificial intelligence (AI) helping to speed up the development of medicines?

Pan Zheng

University of Canterbury (UC) Business School lecturer Dr Pan Zheng is researching a novel way of speeding up the process using machine learning and AI (artificial intelligence) to assist drug repurposing.

“It costs millions of dollars to produce a new medicine, and takes a long time before it can be released to the public,” he says. At a molecular level, the chemical structure in medicine reacts with the protein structure of a disease to suppress or stop it, providing a cure.

“I’m studying the mapping from the chemical structure to the protein structure to construct a machine learning model that predicts the possible relations. In biochemistry term, it is called binding affinity. There are existing databases that keep such information. Machine learning models can be created and trained using these data sets. When there is a new protein structure, i.e., a disease, input to the model, it will recommend some existing medicines that could be possible cures.,” Dr Pan says.

“Like all machine learning models, it won’t be 100%, but with continued improvement we’ll be able to get to 80%, 90%, 95% accuracy.”

This approach to drug repurposing saves time and money, making it quicker and cheaper to make medicine publicly available as well as reducing the cost for the end user.

“The more information that goes into the model, the better the solutions it will present – quicker and more accurate.”

Dr Pan has been working on this research for a year with colleagues in China, Malaysia and Spain. From a computer science background, he joined the UC Business School’s Accounting and Information Systems department in 2018.

“I did study science, but business schools are so multidisciplinary. I’m working in information systems. It is a discipline that is  always trying to help the management and operations of organisations work smarter and more efficiently,”

Another medical application for this research is to use machine learning and AI to test for Alzheimer’s disease, which is often done on paper with a doctor.

A bonus benefit is it could free up the doctor to see more patients, he says.

“From an AI perspective, we are trying to liberate humans from tedious work by giving it to machines. With AI we are progressing society. For example, driverless cars could see taxi drivers lose their jobs, but new jobs are also created, too, like software engineers, system developers and programmers.”

Dr. Pan Zheng received the UC Business School New, Early and Emerging Career Research Award in 2020.

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