Rick Bright knows a thing or two about what works in healthcare.

The former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) has served under multiple presidential administrations, including throughout the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. 

While the healthcare industry continues to shift away from the COVID-focused approach that dominated the past four years, there is a widespread desire among leaders to make sure that if — or when — the next pandemic comes around, everyone is more than prepared for it.

This coincides with a growing interest in the potential of AI, mirroring the broader public fascination with the innovation but more fixated on what it could mean for quickening drug development and improving access to care.

This explains why Bright was in New York on Thursday to honor the five winners of Cure Xchange Challenge: Health AI for Good. 

Hosted by Cure, a healthcare innovation campus located in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, the event honored the five winners: Allagi.AI, BioCurie, Deepecho, Every Cure and Oben Health. These companies will receive a one-year residency at Cure, unrestricted seed money as well as resources and support services from partners like Amazon Web Services, Thermo Fisher Scientific and Nvidia. 

MM+M caught up with Bright, a member of the Cure Xchange Challenge Advisory Board, as well as Cure CEO Seema Kumar, a former executive at Johnson & Johnson, to discuss the competition, how AI can revolutionize pandemic responsiveness and why public-private partnerships are critical for public health.

Below are some key takeaways from the two leaders on the state of AI in healthcare.

Leveraging AI for healthcare innovation

Both Bright and Kumar heralded the growing embrace and investment in AI for health-related purposes but stressed that this innovation must be constructed and utilized in a responsible and equitable manner.

Creating responsible use principles and guidelines for AI in healthcare and medical marketing would be a logical first step on this front.

This includes refining the data AI-supported models are being fed to root out biases that adversely affect patient outcomes.

Bright added that inclusive data systems can have a significant impact on the creation of personalized medicines, cautioning against gathering data for data’s sake. 

AI can bolster pandemic responses

Referencing the World Health Organization’s recent warning about preparing for the potential emergence of ‘Disease X’ — an infection that could spread, infect and kill more people than COVID — both leaders see AI as playing a critical role in shoring up our public health defenses.

Bright noted that building out diverse clinical databases for improved drug design can have a global impact and increase the availability of vaccines, particularly for those historically underrepresented in medical research.

He is a proponent of AI’s capabilities for eliminating time-consuming animal and clinical studies, reducing risk and distributing drugs equitably across the globe.

“We’re all in this society together,” he said. “We saw that again over these last four years: isolationism, nationalism, equity challenges as well as clearly defined ‘haves and have nots.’ There are still places around the world that don’t have access to the COVID vaccine, which is remarkably tragic. What if we could enlist the world to make those vaccines in a new way?”

While the prospect of a government-led and supported pandemic response is preferable to many, doing so is not possible without private sector involvement, as was the case when drugmakers participated in Operation Warp Speed and delivered multiple life-saving vaccines in record time. 

Additionally, Kumar cited the Human Genome Project as an example of how private-public efforts can lead to better outcomes.

She said the Cure Xchange Challenge is representative of her desire to see more voices beyond the major industry players have a say in the crowdsourcing of drug discovery and vaccine development to tackle some of the world’s stickiest health problems. 

Kumar noted that another key factor in making this a success will be in reestablishing public trust, not only with science but also with AI. 

Pointing to the low trust in science and technology, Kumar said organizations need to make a concerted effort to make sure the public understands and engages with this technology in order to overcome misinformation and skepticism.

AI boosting drug discovery

Bright said he believes AI can improve drug development by accelerating discovery, redesigning chemical synthesis and democratizing drug production.

“When we talk about AI and the democratization of the tools, we focus on making sure it is in the hands of labs and communities around the world,” he said. 

The continual lack of clinical trial diversity is where Bright sees an opportunity for AI to disrupt the industry and create datasets that are representative of more patient populations.

In closing, Bright detailed his ideal future for AI in healthcare: one where the technology redesigns drug synthesis, enables on-demand medicine production and addresses unique population-specific needs worldwide.