The Promise Of A Cancer Drug Developed By Artificial Intelligence

Can AI speed up the discovery of new treatments? BPM 31510–a drug designed without tedious work in the lab–has entered human trials.

The Promise Of A Cancer Drug Developed By Artificial Intelligence
[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

BPM 31510 is just another cancer drug in human development trials, except for one thing. Scientists didn’t toil away in labs to come up with it; artificial intelligence did.


The cancer drug development process is costly and time-consuming. On average, it takes 24 to 48 months and upwards of $100 million to find a suitable candidate. Add that to the fact that 95% of all potential drugs fail in clinical trials, and the inefficiencies of the whole drug-discovery machine really become apparent.

Backed by real estate billionaire Carl Berg, eponymous biotech startup Berg wants to use artificial intelligence to design cancer drugs that are cheaper, have fewer side effects, and can be developed in half the time it normally takes. BPM 31510 is the first of Berg’s drugs to get a real-world test.

Berg is one of a number of companies that look at data-driven methods of drug discovery. Instead of generating cancer drugs based on chemical compounds identified in labs, the company compares tissue, urine, and blood samples from cancer patients and healthy patients, generating tens of trillions of data points that are fed into an artificial intelligence system. That system crunches all the data, looking for problems.

BPM 31510, currently in early human trials, focuses on mitochondria–a framework within cells that’s responsible for programmed cell death. Normally, mitochondria triggers damaged cells to die. When cancer strikes, this process goes haywire, and the damaged cells spread. Berg’s drug, if successful, will be able to restore normal cell death processes by changing the metabolic environment within mitochondria.

“BPM 31510 works by switching the fuel that cancer likes to operate on. Cancer cells prefer to operate in a less energy-efficient manner,” says Berg president and co-founder Niven Narain. “Cancers with a high metabolic function, like triple negative breast cancer, glioblastoma, and colon cancer–that’s the sweet spot for this technology.”

IBM is also leveraging artificial intelligence–specifically, it’s much-heralded AI technology Watson–to offer patients better cancer treatment. In a trial conducted with the New York Genome Center, Watson is scanning mutations found in brain cancer patients, matching them with available treatments.


All of these efforts are still in early days, and even on its accelerated timeline, BPM 31510 is still years away from winning an FDA approval. But, as Narain points out, the current drug discovery system desperately needs rethinking.

“If all of us in pharma worked in any other industry, we would be fired, because one out of every 1,000 compounds makes it to an approved drug. We are not taking the time to understand patients upfront,” he says.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.