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NEC's Promise in Preventing Infectious Disease: New Initiatives and the Power of One Team

Drug discovery and development takes at least a decade, with limited chances of success. AI-based drug development improves the chances of success, while also shortening the time of discovery and development. In essence, producing innovative medicines that are safer, more effective and available more quickly. In this highly specialized and challenging area, the NEC Group has a unique presence and advantage. In addition to leveraging the strengths of its digital technologies, the NEC Group aims to help solve a critical issue for humanity - combating infectious diseases - by making use of its abilities in both AI and biotechnology.

The development of effective Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines against COVID-19 was the subject of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. mRNA is a storehouse of genetic information that serves as a blueprint for proteins, and by utilizing it, pharmaceutical companies have succeeded in developing highly effective and safe COVID-19 vaccines, and in a short period of time.

Expanding cooperation

The NEC Group is using AI-based technologies to produce vaccine designs that enable safe and effective prevention/treatment of disease. Although NEC's main business has been in the telecommunications and digital fields, this initiative into drug development is a well thought move. The Group's acquisition of NEC OncoImmunity (NOI, headquartered in Oslo, Norway) in 2019 is one of the key steps in this area.

NOI, along with other NEC Group laboratories, such as NEC Laboratories Europe, NEC Laboratories America and NEC India, can be considered as a bridge between digital and life sciences, with expertise in both AI and biology. NOI's unique 'neoantigen prediction technology' has enabled the company to take its assets to the early stages of clinical trials for truly personalized cancer vaccines, and to pre-clinical stages for broadly protective vaccines against infectious disease. Marius Gheorghe, Principal Bioinformatician at NOI, whose career background is in computer science and computational biology, says: "Developing state-of-the-art technology and collaborating with experts from relevant domains and activities, with the common goal of curing cancer and combating existing and potentially future diseases is my driving force."

NOI can be considered as a bridge between digital and life sciences, with expertise in both AI and biology.

When the world was gripped with COVID-19, the NEC Group decided to take the initiative to re-purpose the technologies it had used to design a cancer vaccine into an equally effective means of developing vaccines against infectious diseases. "The key underlying principle is that the mechanism of activating immune cells to attack abnormal cells is expected to have the same effect on both cancer cells and virus-infected cells," says Saverio Niccolini, COO of NOI. "In the cancer area, we will combine NEC and NOI technologies to develop personalized cancer immunotherapy. We are also working on developments in the area of infectious diseases, and validation is underway to further enhance the technology," he said.

In brief, the AI-based technology for vaccine design against infectious disease uses viral proteomic information to infer potential target areas within the viral proteins that are the most likely to trigger an immune response. The AI then uses population modeling to identify the optimal combination of viral target areas that would strongly activate the immune system and offer a broad protection in the human population. While this is carried out, an important step is to discard any potential target areas that might be harmful to the human body. Such vaccines can also be designed to be protective against multiple strains of viruses, thus providing broader protection against entire viral families besides safety and efficacy.

The NEC Group aims to join with strong pharmaceutical partners and research institutes who can help to deliver such AI-derived vaccines into the clinic. NEC believes that a combination of its own state-of-the-art computing resources, notably supercomputers, and extensive experience in the development and operation of advanced AI will be a key asset for pharma companies in years to come. As a single team, the NEC Group will be able to address several unmet challenges that the world faces today in healthcare and pharmaceuticals.

Designing safe and effective vaccines

Previously mentioned, as part of a global company with offices around the world, the NEC Group extends collaboration in vaccine research and development across borders and time zones. Discussions with, for example, NEC's laboratories in Heidelberg, Germany, and Princeton, USA, and NEC's headquarters in Japan, help to share and learn from a wide range of knowledge. This international experience, expansive network, and wealth of resources available within NEC, as a global IT company, are attractive points when working with research institutes and pharmaceutical companies.

However, working in global companies comes with global challenges, for instance, in NOI's early years in the group, Gheorghe recalls, "Identifying the right people for the right work was sometimes complicated in such a large organization as NEC." To overcome this obstacle, he tried to communicate closely with colleagues who could give him a bird's eye view of the various work streams across the company, and in the process, realize “the power of one team”.

For example, in one joint research project, members from NEC headquarters were responsible for liaison and coordination among the parties involved, while NOI focused on technology development. This division of roles promoted mutual understanding and efficient operations, resulting in outcomes that exceeded targets.

Also, in April 2022, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) showed tremendous belief in NOI’s technology, and seed funded the research for developing a next-generation vaccine design effective against beta coronaviruses, including novel coronaviruses and their close relatives. CEPI is an innovative global partnership working to accelerate the development of vaccines against epidemic and pandemic threats. Its selection process for funding is very rigorous and only after a thorough technical review and recognition of promise they accept organizations as a research partner. It is indeed a rare feat for an IT company such as the NEC Group to have CEPI fund its research for vaccine design, which is a strong indication that the NEC Group has the potential and will be able to fulfill its promise to make a significant contribution to the field of vaccine development.

Coronaviruses have now proven their pandemic potential with devastating consequences, and COVID-19 won’t be the last coronavirus to threaten humanity. Nadia Cohen, CEPI’s Broadly Protective Coronavirus Vaccine (BPCV) Programme Lead, explained ”With their strong experience in artificial intelligence-driven biotechnology, NOI could help better and more rapidly identify and select antigens for vaccines targeting multiple coronaviruses to help us prepare for this worrisome threat.”

These are not the only projects that motivate researchers at NEC, a new project started in December 2023, which is considered to be one of the most challenging endeavors: the development of a universal vaccine against Influenza. A universal vaccine is a vaccine that is effective against multiple viral strains and provides broad coverage in terms of population. Most of the current approaches, utilize a cocktail of several vaccines effective against individual viral strains. Kazuhide Onoguchi of the NEC-AI Drug Development Division says, "Theoretically, there is a possibility that a single vaccine could be used against 100 different viruses. Through this project, we hope to prove that the NEC Group's technology is a game changer in vaccine development, and we are working towards making this a reality!”

The NEC Group's purpose is always "to create the social values of safety, security, fairness and efficiency, and to realize a sustainable society in which everyone can fully realize their potential". As better vaccines can be designed, more viruses can be targeted. Universal vaccines for several infectious diseases will protect people's health and bring in an innate sense of security. When we picture this in a not-so-distant future, it is easy to imagine the great value the NEC Group can deliver to society.

Contributing to society as one team

Even with the power of AI, success is not guaranteed. However, with the state-of-the-art knowledge and the best efforts of those involved, the chances of success are bound to increase.As Gheorghe says, "The most rewarding part of my job is to realize that my research and knowledge is benefiting society." Like him, everyone involved in these projects, across offices, echo the same sense of strong desire to contribute to the health of people and patients around the world.

Bringing together the expertise of all involved, including partners such as research institutes and pharmaceutical companies, to promote co-creation is a powerful step towards building a brighter society of the future.