Skymount Medical Partners with LSU to Test COVID-19 Treatments Discovered by AI

Artificial intelligence software developed by an interdisciplinary team of LSU researchers could shorten the time for drug development from 15 years to 15 days; save lives, reduce symptoms.



Mapping protein-protein interactions

Artificial intelligence helps map known antiviral peptides (AVPs) to different cell mechanisms by analyzing protein-protein interactions. The AVPs are then ranked by how effectively they can slow the propagation of coronavirus in the human body.


BATON ROUGE, June 5, 2020 — A Calgary-based technology company, Skymount Medical, has signed a licensing agreement with Louisiana State University (LSU) and is working in partnership on potential COVID-19 treatments.  
The artificial intelligence platform DeepDrug was created by an interdisciplinary team of Louisiana State University researchers led by Dr. Supratik Mukhopadhyay, associate professor in the LSU Department of Computer Science, and Dr. Michal Brylinski, associate professor in the LSU Department of Biological Sciences with a joint appointment in the LSU Center for Computation & Technology (LSU CCT). The team, which also includes Adam Bess, an LSU doctoral student in computer science, is a current semi-finalist for the IBM Watson AI XPrize, a $5 million award for innovative teams using artificial intelligence to tackle global challenges.
Artificial intelligence, or AI, can dramatically shorten the time to discover new drug compounds—from years to weeks. Whenever the DeepDrug platform is able to identify currently FDA-approved antivirals as effective COVID-19 treatments—a practice known as drug repurposing—it also becomes possible to get treatments to patients faster. This could save 90% of the time from initial discovery to getting a drug on the market. DeepDrug can also evaluate different compounds and drug combinations for potential toxicity to verify the safety of proposed treatments.


“This licensing opportunity with Skymount is just another indicator of the abilities of the [LSU DeepDrug] team and the strength of the tools they create.”—Sam Bentley, LSU Vice President of Research & Economic Development

Essentially a drug design tool, DeepDrug uses AI-based techniques to process one of the world’s most comprehensive datasets of more than 300,000 drugs and compounds and also to analyze viral mechanisms and corresponding data accumulated over many years of research.

Skymount is currently seeking Canadian and U.S. government support to remove lag time in the legacy drug approval process—again, in the context of drug repurposing—to advance testing in the lab and get treatments to those who need them faster.

“The excitement is palpable as we progress towards clinical trials,” said Zubin Kothawala, CEO of Skymount Medical. “Vaccines take time to develop, but treatments for COVID-19 can be available sooner. We had been working with LSU’s experts on AI on another project using Skymount drones to tackle ecological problems when we became aware of the DeepDrug team’s success in using its AI to discover antibiotics and antimicrobials. We were amazed at how quickly the technology could be used to also find and create antiviral treatments.”
“We are proud of the DeepDrug team and their amazing work,” said LSU Vice President of Research & Economic Development Sam Bentley. “This licensing opportunity with Skymount is just another indicator of the abilities of the team and the strength of the tools they create.”

Some of the new drugs the AI proposed would need to go through rigorous and lengthy testing to prove they are effective and safe, while pre-existing drugs do not. There are about 90 antiviral drugs on the market that have already been approved by the FDA. Most of them have so far been used to treat HIV, hepatitis B and C, and herpes, but DeepDrug indicated that some would be effective against coronavirus as well.


“DeepDrug has the power to perform 15 years of drug discovery and due diligence in 15 days and leads the pack in medical AI in terms of accuracy, speed, and performance.”—Zubin Kothawala, Skymount Medical

The therapeutics DeepDrug is developing can potentially inhibit viral mechanisms in a patient’s body and ease symptoms, thereby lowering the mortality rate. These treatments are being built using compounds and drugs already approved by the FDA. They can prevent viral cell entry and cell exit, as well as RNA transcription, which is a necessary step for any virus to replicate itself in the body. They prevent the virus from entering cells by inhibiting endocytosis/membrane fusion with the SARS-CoV-2 ACE2 spike protein. They also save healthy cells from infection by inhibiting exocytosis, where viral molecules are secreted from infected cells.
The DeepDrug team is supported by Dr. Stephania Cormier, a respiratory immunotoxicologist and associate vice president of research at Louisiana State University; Patrick McGrew, a retired attorney and philanthropist; Dr. Oleg Bess, a physician from Los Angeles, Calif.; Frej Berglind, a graduate student at LSU; and Joseph Feinstein, an undergraduate student at Brown University.
“This is a major breakthrough,” Kothawala continued. “Treatments are being discovered through the most advanced drug-discovery AI engine available. DeepDrug has the power to perform 15 years of drug discovery and due diligence in 15 days and leads the pack in medical AI in terms of accuracy, speed, and performance.”
Skymount Medical is part of Skymount Global, which recently completed a cross-Canada expansion from Calgary to Toronto and set up its first U.S.-based office in Baton Rouge, La. Skymount Global provides drone and satellite communications, technical support, cloud development, and AI technologies. Its world-leading drone-based pipeline inspection service was developed in the same LSU lab as the DeepDrug AI. Skymount Global has previously created drone-based systems powered by artificial intelligence for wildfire detection, agriculture, and border security.



Elsa Hahne
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development