Indian American senior exec at Gilead Sciences on how AI impacts biopharma

Ritu Jha–

Artificial Intelligence (AI) will have a significant impact on the biopharma industry in the next couple of years. There was a lag, so big biopharma firms have a lot to catch up in putting AI to optimal use, believes Indian American Sachin Sontakke, Senior Director of Information Technology, Cloud, Data and Analytics at Gilead Sciences.

Gilead Sciences, founded in 1987, is a $27 billion biopharmaceutical company headquartered in Foster City, California, It focuses on researching and developing antiviral drugs used in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, influenza, and Covid-19, and is a member of the NASDAQ Biotechnology Index and the S&P 500.

Sontakke, who has spent over 20 years in the biopharmaceutical industry, spoke recently with indica about AI’s future, its implementation as well as clinical trials and drug innovation in India.

“This is an exciting time for AI and cloud computing,” he told indica in an interview. “Data computing ability is growing significantly and we get more insights that can accelerate both science and industry.”

He feels tech is a huge part of any science, and an integral part of innovation. “Twenty years ago, experimental scientists would put all their results on paper for any analysis. Now, everything happens via advanced electronics and AI because of their ability to absorb and analyze large volumes of data. This speeds up decision-making,” Sontakke explained.

The use of AI in the biopharma sector is all-encompassing, he said, and the scope will grow exponentially in the next couple of years. “AI is used in every aspect of the pharma industry — drug discovery, development, manufacturing and even giving the drug to patients. The tech is an enabler while writing, and designing a drug, up to its clinical trial. In business processes, AI helps improve efficiency. Sometimes, it is better than humans.”

He said data fed to AI is generated using business processes such as lab experiments or in manufacturing or while conducting clinical trials. Gilead also purchases real-world data from other agencies and merges that with its data to make decisions.

Sontakke said Gilead has partnered with 20 different Indian biopharmaceutical companies and that it makes drugs accessible to the third world through India and Indian manufacturers. “Gilead doesn’t make any profit from that,” he said. “Our access policies are unbelievable, in a way they go against making money,” he added.

Despite all its progress, Sontakke said, India is not focusing enough on biopharma innovation. “India is pretty good in manufacturing drugs or Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs) and generic medicines. Developing a new drug or new therapy is expensive. You will see that 90% of the drugs get developed in the US and then maybe a few in Europe. I think the focus in India should be there on this factor and policies need to be put in place for that.”

He also raised a concern about clinical trials in India. “There are some inherent problems, including security and data privacy. But, when compared to China, India is a better choice. To deal with that we don’t store our data in India,” he said.

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