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AI-based drug-developing support center in dormant state
  • By Kim Chan-hyuk
  • Published 2020.07.28 14:16
  • Updated 2020.07.28 14:16
  • comments 0

In March last year, the government aggressively promoted the opening of a new support center for artificial intelligence-backed new drug development in southern Seoul.

At the opening ceremony, Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo asked the center to picture a bold blueprint.

However, the Center for AI-based New Drug Development Facilitation has sat almost idle for more than a year. The center did nothing except for providing AI-related education twice and holding a symposium.

The Center for AI-based New Drug Development Facilitation has been almost inactive since the opening in March 2019.

Korea Pharmaceutical and Bio-Pharma Manufacturers Association (KPBMA) and Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI) established the support center, after launching a task force in December 2017 and signing an agreement in February 2018.

KPBMA operates the center with the support of KHIDI.

When launching the center last year, the health and welfare ministry said the center would share government-funded institutions’ knowledge, successful cases, and information with pharmaceutical firms to develop new drugs swiftly and safely with AI.

The center said that it would focus on training and PR activities to make the most of AI, collect, store, and provide data needed for pharmaceutical firms, and share, promote, and standardize public data for AI-based new drug development.

However, Korea Biomedical Review has found that all the center did in the past year was giving general education of new drug development and AI in August, and holding AI Pharma Korea Conference 2019 in October. The center promoted the education program through the website of KPBMA because it did not even have its own.

In particular, the center’s most significant task, building data and sharing information, was far from execution. The center did not provide any meetings of experts.

The supporting center said it formed a consultation body of experts from 25 companies to accelerate AI-backed new drug development and held a meeting in June.

However, an official at one of the participating drugmaker said it was not true.

“We have not received any message for a detailed task of the consultation body, and we haven’t met yet,” the official said. “AI-based new drug development is drawing attention, but the center is not doing much.”

Another industry source also said there was no official agenda derived from a meeting of the consultation body.

Some said the supporting center might have failed to execute its plans because of IBM’s unexpected discontinuation of Watson for Drug Discovery (WDD) service.

According to sources, KPMBA and KHIDI mulled introducing IBM’s WDD in 2017 while preparing to establish the supporting center. The two sent officials to IBM headquarters to speed up the work. In June 2017, KPBMA scouted iMedisync CEO Bae Young-woo as the association’s research and development policy committee member.

However, KPBMA’s attempt to introduce the AI service ended after IBM’s withdrawal of AI business for new drug development in April 2019.

An official at a pharmaceutical firm said the government must have been too naive to think that an introduction of Watson would help start AI-based new drug development.

“The government lacked the long-term plan and market analysis,” the official said.

An official at KPBMA and an official at the supporting center said they were unaware of any details related to the matter.

Korea Biomedical Review also found that KHIDI made a drastic change in the budget for the second half of 2019.

According to the revision of the KHIDI’s budget for 2019 released in October last year, KHIDI cut all the budget except for outsourcing business expenses.

KHIDI reduced the budget for extra expenses, including transportation, consultation, and conference expenses from 14.3 million won ($11,992) to 4.6 million won. The institute also cut technology and information activity expenses from 21.3 million won to 4.4 million won. It slashed the costs of materials and facilities from 4.8 million won to 480,000 won.

The budget cut must have been inevitable due to the botched introduction of IBM’s WDD, observers said.

However, KHIDI said such suspicion was groundless.

“The initial budget was set unclearly, so we revised it in detail,” an official at the KHIDI said. “The revision was irrelevant to the attempt to introduce IBM’s WDD.”

However, KHIDI had conducted a separate project to support local drugmakers’ preliminary tests on IBM’s WDD, he added.


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