Teen Innovator’s New AI Tool Helps Create Affordable Drugs

7:16 minutes

The U.S. has some of the highest prescription drug prices in the world, which can push patients into bankruptcy over medications they cannot afford. More than three in four American adults think the prices of prescription drugs are unaffordable, prompting the Senate to recently pass a bill intended to help lower prescription drug costs for seniors.

One young innovator set out to find his own solution. 17 year-old Rishab Jain developed ICOR, a tool to improve the rapid production of drugs like COVID-19 vaccines.

Ira talks with Rishab Jain from Portland, Oregon, about his innovation and vision for the future.

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Segment Guests

Rishab Jain

Rishab Jain is an innovator and student based in Portland, Oregon.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. The US is notorious for having incredibly high drug prices, which often leave people deciding between groceries and medication. In fact, more than three in four American adults think the prices of prescription drugs are unaffordable. And the Senate recently passed a bill that will help lower prescription drug costs for seniors.

Our next guest has been working on his own solution for years. He’s part of our Young Innovators series, teens who are taking on big problems. Our final innovator is 17-year-old high school student Rishab Jain, who has developed a new model to reduce cost and increase production of important drugs like COVID-19 vaccines. It’s called ICOR. He joins me now from Portland, Oregon. Welcome to the program, Rishab.

RISHAB JAIN: Hi, it’s so great to be on. Thanks so much for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re quite welcome. Now, this is a huge problem to take on, so what inspired you to find the solution?

RISHAB JAIN: So it kind of actually goes back to when I was taking a biology class around two years ago. And in that class, I was doing a case study on COVID-19, and I came across this term known as recombinant vaccines, which was really interesting to me because I kept seeing this idea of recombinant technology come up in a lot of the past literature that I was reading, a lot of the science research that I was doing. So I decided to dig in a little bit more. And I came into this fascinating world where, essentially, people can take genes and express them in cell factories to produce output proteins, which can be used for drugs, medications, and vaccines. And I wanted to see if I could use my skills in programming and artificial intelligence to help actually improve this technology, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, to help make more effective vaccines and to help make them faster.

IRA FLATOW: OK, so tell us– you’ve developed a model to make drugs more affordable. Can you walk us through it?

RISHAB JAIN: So this model is called ICOR. And it uses this really cool artificial intelligence technique known as deep learning. And what deep learning is really known for and what it’s special for is its ability to really look at huge data sets and grasp patterns that perhaps humans can’t really see from that data.

So one of the really big things in this model is that it’s able to look at thousands of genes in the genome of an organism called E. coli, which is a simple bacterium. And it looks at these genes in order to learn the types of patterns and the usage of individual repeat elements within E. coli’s genes. And based off of this, my tool ICOR is able to better optimize other genes, like, for example, human insulin or a gene for producing a malaria vaccine, in order to have more expression when they’re introduced into an E. coli system.

IRA FLATOW: So basically, you’ve created a really productive protein factory, right?

RISHAB JAIN: Yeah, exactly. So right now, protein factories or cell factories are really useful in the field because they already have kind of brought down costs a little bit compared to chemically engineering proteins. But my tool essentially allows us to do this even more. So I found through some testing that my tool is able to result in 236% more protein for the same amount of input cell and gene. So given this, we could potentially produce far more vaccines and pharmaceuticals in the same amount of time, which can definitely help save a lot of cost.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, the more you can make, that makes each one of them cheaper. What kinds of drugs can you produce this way?

RISHAB JAIN: Really, there’s a lot of drugs. Right now– and there are quite a few FDA-approved recombinant drugs. Some of them are as common as human insulin, so most human insulin is actually manufactured today through recombinant techniques. There are also some developments in the area of vaccines, so vaccines for certain types of hepatitis as well as malaria. And even more recently, I’ve seen some COVID vaccines being tested out recombinantly.

And then there’s also cancer drugs, so drugs for lung cancer and breast cancer, specific immunotherapy and chemotherapy drugs, that can be made within a cell like yeast or E. coli and then purified into a protein, which can then be given in the form of a drug for a human.

IRA FLATOW: I know that you are especially interested in cancer research. That’s a cause you really care about, right?

RISHAB JAIN: Yeah. That’s something that’s been really close to my heart. Over the last almost five years now, I’ve been working on cancer research. And I’ve had a couple other research projects where I’ve focused specifically on improving cancer therapeutics. And I believe through this project, as well, by making drugs more accessible and making them more affordable through mass production and scaling them up, this can also be applied to the cancer drugs that I mentioned.

IRA FLATOW: As you just said, you’ve been doing this for, like, five years now. You’re 17. That means you started before you were a teenager, working on this problem. Where do you get that motivation? How do you do that?

RISHAB JAIN: It really goes back to a young age for me. When I was just four or five years old, some of my fondest memories came from STEM, like Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math-related activities. I remember going to the science museum with my older brother and having a lot of fun there and also developing apps with him at a young age. I remember forming my first app development company with my older brother when I was, I think, just maybe six or seven years old.

And so these passions for me, in the areas of science and technology, evolved over time. I was able to look at problems that I was facing in my community and that the world was facing as a whole and wanted to see if I could use the knowledge and experience that I’d gained through my various projects in the past to apply to these problems.

IRA FLATOW: Your first company when you were six or seven.

RISHAB JAIN: Yeah. It was actually a simple app development company where we would publish apps on the Android Play Store. And I think they actually got several thousand downloads. So I remember making a couple mini games, a couple apps for utility like compasses and things like that. So it was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot about programming at a young age through those experiences.

IRA FLATOW: I’ll say. Let’s get back to your company ICOR. Is anyone using ICOR yet?

RISHAB JAIN: Yeah, so ICOR has been licensed by a biotech company, and they’ve been aiding me in the process of validating and testing this tool. So currently, ICOR is backed by, essentially, five industry-standard metrics that indicate its performance in the real world and suggest that it would have a higher amount of protein expression. But it hasn’t yet been tested in the lab, so that’s something that I’m working on and that I’d like to do in the near future.

IRA FLATOW: Amazing. And you still have a year left of high school. Good luck to you.

RISHAB JAIN: Yeah. Thanks so much.

IRA FLATOW: Rishab Jain is an inventor and high school student from Portland, Oregon.

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