Data Will Help Find New Cures

Data Will Help Find New Cures

Mining of huge data will enhance the probability of finding new drugs, making India the laboratory of the world

Illustration by Raj Verma Illustration by Raj Verma

The Covid-19 pandemic is shaking up well-established business models and dispelling long-held assumptions, holding out an opportunity to reshape and democratise healthcare around the planet.

The future will call for a new approach to prevention, screening, diagnosis, therapy, monitoring and management of diseases. We are likely to see convergence of translational research in biomedicine with disciplines such as public health, epidemiology, infectious disease modelling and data science. The multi-disciplinary approach will demand a reimagining of biomedical innovation.

The availability of genetic information, together with other phenotypic as well as medical information, is helping identify new drug targets by linking particular genes and their products to individual diseases. In addition to genomic data, other data have also moved into the spotlight. Proteomics and metabolomics, as well as epigenetics and an integrated view of all of these disciplines, are gaining traction. Also, the impact of lifestyle choices is starting to be factored in.

On the other end of the spectrum, electronic health records and other patient-related information in registries and hospital administration databases are helping establish real-world evidence for effectiveness of a particular medicine.

Researchers today are relying on multiplexed data sets to make drug discovery and development more innovative, cheaper and faster.

Data Science For Affordable Innovation

Drug discovery is capital intensive, research-intensive and intellectual property-intensive with inherently long time lines.

First, researchers must identify a potential therapeutic target. Then, a drug that acts on that target must be developed, purified and tested, both on cells in a petri dish and in living animals. In order to be approved, this new drug must meet rigorous safety specifications and pass through highly controlled phases of human testing.

It could take up to a decade for a new drug to complete the 'lab to market' journey, and cost over $2.5 billion.

With a '1 in 10' success rate, the global pharmaceutical industry is looking at data science for enhancing the probability of success and shortening timelines.

Data science is today enabling the pharmaceutical industry to throw off the shackles of the conventional one-drug-one-target-one-disease model of healthcare innovation, which is inefficient, expensive and time-consuming.

In the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, scientists are extensively using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analytics tools to find treatments for Covid-19 quickly.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Human Vaccines Project launched the Human Immunomics Initiative in April. This initiative is leveraging AI models to accelerate vaccine development by virtually testing potential vaccines and predicting which therapies might work best across populations.

Data Science Accelerates Innovation

Data science is, therefore, ushering in the next wave of drug innovation, by promising to transform every stage of the new drug discovery and development process.

Bioinformatics, a specialised branch of data science, is helping incorporate knowledge derived from genomics, proteomics and other biological disciplines into drug discovery and drug design in order to come up with revolutionary ideas for new molecules.

Data analytics is helping predict clinical outcomes, inform clinical trial designs, support evidence of effectiveness, optimise dosing, predict product safety and evaluate potential adverse event mechanisms.

Drug discovery research today is bringing together cross-disciplinary teams comprising biologists, chemists, clinicians and data scientists. Data scientists draw on their expertise in computer science and statistics to sift through gargantuan virtual databases of molecular and clinical data to zoom in on likely drug candidates that treat key mutations.

Drug Discovery - Huge Prospects For India

Serendipitously, the Covid-19 crisis has led to the discovery of a deep reservoir of scientific and engineering competencies within India. The emergency has galvanised the Indian scientific community to collaborate like never before in finding interdisciplinary solutions to give the country an edge in this high-stakes battle against the deadly virus.

India's 100-plus research centres are leading the way in development of vaccines, anti-virals, diagnostic kits and novel therapies. Prestigious institutes established by the government and supported by national agencies such as the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research, the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Department of Biotechnology have been in the forefront of the battle against Covid-19, researching and developing vaccines, diagnostics, therapies, etc. This is despite historically low public expenditure on R&D at just under 1 per cent of GDP.

The hunt for effective treatments and vaccines for Covid-19 has demonstrated the importance of having a strong clinical trials industry. India's clinical trials industry, which was projected to reach a size of $1 billion in 2016, had suffered a setback due to regulatory uncertainties between 2013 and 2015. With regulations streamlined and clinical trial approval timelines reducing, the future is again starting to look up. Re-establishing India as a clinical trials hub can generate a million potential clinical research associate jobs.

The exponential growth in fields of AI and machine learning is leading to a huge demand for highly skilled professionals. As more data analytics projects are outsourced to India, due to dearth of such skills across the world, we are likely to see a boom in this field in the years ahead.

India has an opportunity to create integrated databases that cut across genomic, molecular, chemical, clinical and even medical administrative and insurance data. Plant genomics and plant chemistries can provide another powerful multiplexed database.

India is home to 1.3 billion people with more than 4,500 anthropologically well-defined populations. India, thus, offers wide genetic variance - studies have shown that genetic diversity in India is up to four times greater than among Europeans. This offers a huge opportunity for India to create and mine a rich source of genomic information. In fact, smart mining of genetic data can help India transform the disadvantage of a huge disease burden into a competitive advantage by capturing and analysing this information.


The Indian government needs to increase funding to research institutes, establish new research parks, support more incubators and cooperate closely with academia and industry to leverage the country's latent R&D prowess.

It can play an enabling role in incentivising the creation and mining of databases by giving tax breaks to companies involved in such activities. Such a move will give a fillip to the Digital India story as it will allow Indian companies to intelligently leverage data to come up with high value products, including innovative therapies, for global markets.

The pandemic was a moment of awakening for India because its scientific community demonstrated that it could very quickly respond to the war effort against Covid-19.

Protecting a billion-plus population from a pandemic in a country that traditionally spends insufficiently on science was never going to be easy. Yet, Indian science proved itself resilient, resourceful and proactive. In addition to being the 'Pharmacy for the World,' India can position itself as a 'Laboratory for the World' by leveraging its huge repository of biomedical and data science talent to develop affordable drugs, vaccines and diagnostics for use globally.