Big Data and the pursuit of the body’s hidden drugs

Published September 1, 2014   |   
Aaron Krol

Here are a few facts about Berg, a pharmaceutical and diagnostics company headquartered in Framingham, MA, that seem calculated to set off all the alarm bells in the head of a skeptical observer:

The president and CTO, Niven Narain, claims that his company can cut the time and cost of bringing a new drug to market in half. He plans to use molecules naturally found in the human body to treat diseases like cancer, diabetes, and major neurological conditions — among the most intractable problems in healthcare. Narain believes his company can uncover these elusive molecules with an artificial intelligence platform, which will choose potential drugs itself by looking at big data. And he gets almost all the money to pursue this project from a single investor, Carl Berg, who made his billion-dollar fortune in Silicon Valley real estate.

After covering the drug industry for a while, you start to make some mental substitutions for certain phrases. Artificial intelligence: pattern recognition. Big data: genomes, and heck, whatever else you got. Naturally occurring: likely to be a hopelessly complicated biomolecule whose activity we can hardly begin to understand.
Single real estate investor: well, all right, that one doesn’t come up as much.

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