The start of a new decade has prompted numerous predictions about what developments will happen in the next few years. 

We thought we’d take a look at what’s being said about pharma and health research. 

Artificial intelligence and machine learning 

Artificial intelligence and machine learning have long been lauded as techniques that will usher in all kinds of ground breaking developments across a vast range of industries. So perhaps it is not surprising to have it on this list… but is the hype warranted? 

Well, Stu Cantrill, Chief Editor at Nature Chemistry says AI is likely to come into its own in 2020. In a recent webinar, hosted by Chemical and Engineering News (CEN), he said he believes 2020 signifies a tipping point for AI.

He believes that using such technology to automate processes such as synthesis will allow chemists to spend time on more creative work, such as designing new experiments.

AI and ML are already showing promise in a number of areas which can help accelerate drug synthesis. They can help identify the optimum conditions for carrying out a reaction and save hours on experimentation. 

They can even help identify target molecules for drug synthesis. Last year a team at the pharma start up Insilico Medicine used AI to find a drug candidate for treating cystic fibrosis in just 46 weeks.

There is certainly growing recognition of the importance of such technology in the chemistry lab. Pharma companies may already be using automated synthesis but now academia is catching up and beginning to offer training to ensure the next generation of chemists are fully versed with the use of such techniques in the lab.

Centres for Doctoral Training (CDT) are offering multidisciplinary PhD programs to equip students with the knowledge they need to make the most of such advances. At Imperial College London, their CDT students are learning about next generation synthesis with techniques such as robotics and are being taught to analyse the vast swathes of data produced by more automated processes. Data driven synthesis looks set to become more common as chemists use data from high throughput techniques to forecast and optimise reactions.

While companies like the Toronto-based biotechnology company Cyclica are looking at using AI to make more effective drugs.

They have developed the platform Ligand Express which uses AI and algorithms to help understand how drugs interact in the body and gain a better understanding of side effects, safety and mechanisms of action.

Of course, challenges still remain and more data is still needed to feed ML algorithms before their full potential can be realised but this is certainly one area to watch in the coming years.


Another area creating a lot of interest is the gene editing technique CRISPR. In recent years, it has rarely been out of the headlines either for generating excitement about its potential, or for causing apprehension about its misuse. 

There has also been agreement that it needs to be more accurate and quicker to use. We are now at the stage where improvements to CRISPR means it is getting easier and cheaper to use. We are also seeing the first results emerging from clinical trials using the technique.  

Which is why many believe 2020 is the year we’ll start to see CRISPR make an impact in healthcare and spearhead new treatments for a range of devastating illnesses. 

At the University of Pennsylvania, researchers are optimistic about the early results from a trial using CRISPR for the immunotherapy of patients with late-stage cancers. 

Other trials using CRISPR include a therapy to treat sickle cell disease and beta thalassemia. If it proves effective then it could be a significant development. The first results are looking promising so patients looking for relief from their symptoms are bound to be eagerly awaiting more.

New clinical trials using CRISPR are also in the pipeline. Companies like Intellia Therapeutics are expected to file for FDA approval to begin a trial using the technique to treat the rare genetic disorder transthyretin amyloidosis.

Meanwhile, a number of startups are looking at using CRISPR for a variety of medical applications from improving organ transplants to implementing personalised medicine. 

So there’s certainly a lot going on in terms of CRISPR and which avenues prove to be fruitful is something many of us are eagerly waiting to find out.

Microbiome research 

Another area that will be interesting to follow in the coming years is research into the microbiome. 

A decade ago the term microbiome was the preserve of scientists but now it has caught the attention of the public because of the far reaching significance being attached to it. 

Our microbiome is said to affect our physical and mental health and many studies have looked at how it is impacted by our diet and lifestyle. A study into how a baby’s microbiome is affected by their delivery method grabbed headlines last year. 

Health and food companies have been quick to capitalise on this interest in the microbiome by offering all manner of prebiotics and probiotics to help our gut bacteria. 

But microbiome research is still relatively new and there is much we still don’t understand. However, we expect to see answers to some pressing questions about our microbiome in the near future. Only this month a report was released saying the microbiome sequencing market is booming.

Pharmaceutical companies are keen to understand how the microbiome affects our health and what potential it has in areas such as personalised medicine. 

Lauren K. Wolf from CEN believes 2020 is likely to give us more of an insight into how microbes affect the efficacy of drugs we ingest. Small molecule drugs can be digested by microbes and have already been seen to impact the treatment of Parkinson’s patients with L-dopa. 

Share your thoughts

What do you think are likely to be the big areas of development in 2020 and beyond? Send us a message via Twitter @Radleys, Instagram @radleys_chemistry or LinkedIn @Radleys