Molecular biology refers to the study of the structure and interactions of cellular molecules such as nucleic acids and proteins critical to biological processes.
American scientist Warren Weaver introduced the term “molecular biology” in a 1938 report. He was the director of the Natural Sciences section of the Rockefeller Foundation then.
Molecular biology research used to be the prerogative of big pharmacy companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Roche, Novartis etc. Slowly, but surely, the big tech has made huge inroads into the field. Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are luring biologists and bioinformaticists from top academic institutions. The big tech is keen on bringing the power of cloud computing and machine learning to bear on the healthcare vertical.
The power of big tech
Flushed with funds, better resources, and advanced technologies, the tech giants are primed to dominate the field of molecular biology. Recently, Alphabet’s DeepMind has open-sourced AlphaFold 2.0— the AI-based algorithm helps in predicting the shape of proteins. The project, kick-started in 2016, is widening the horizons of the scientific community in areas including drug discovery.
The Alan Turing Institute has called for pilot projects on AI for molecular biology to address important concerns in genomics and biology, such as the structure and function of genomes, the molecular interplay inside cells and organs, the role, form, and function of proteins, and the advancement of imaging tools. In addition, with a $100 million investment, NVIDIA launched the UK’s most powerful supercomputer, Cambridge-1, to enable scientists and healthcare experts to help discover new drugs and digitise DNA into sequences of billions of characters in a bid to accelerate the digital biology revolution.
In collaboration with Oxford Biomedica, Princeton University, and Synthace, Microsoft has released the Station B platform developed at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, UK. The company’s first molecular biology facility improves all steps of the Design-Build-Test-Learn workflow commonly used for programming biological systems. Amazon’s 2018 acquisition of PillPack and also the launch of the Amazon pharmacy in 2020, signals the tech giant’s interest in the pharma sector.
Global pharma revenues totalled $1.27 trillion in 2020, according to an industry report. And the big tech wants a huge pie of the pharma market share. Additionally, the field provides a wealth of real-world data for machine learning, intelligent information retrieval, case-based reasoning, and other data-hungry AI fields. For example, a single NMR protein structure experiment can generate more than 500 gigabytes of data, which might take weeks or months to decode for human professionals.
Big pharma companies need to step out of their comfort zone and incorporate cutting edge technology to push the research in fields such as molecular biology. In addition, big pharma needs to collaborate with the big tech companies. Take, for example, Boehringer Ingelheim recently partnered with Google to use the tech giant’s quantum computing expertise to accelerate pharmaceutical research and development.
At present, only big tech has the technical prowess to crunch the massive volumes of healthcare data generated on a daily basis. It’s important to make sense of the huge swathes of data to push the frontiers of health research. Big tech’s access to massive health data from the consumer market is a significant advantage. However, a closer examination of the data reveals that it more often than not fails to meet the quality requirements for medical usage. Meanwhile, big pharma has access to good quality data, thanks to the years of data from clinical trials and R&D. Secondly, big pharma has years of expertise to ensure the safety and effectiveness of medical products in the market. Both big pharma and big tech bring mutually exclusive advantages to the table and a partnership can go a long way in propelling the field to new heights.