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Every year, thousands of bankers, venture capitalists, private equity investors, and others flock to San Francisco’s Union Square to pursue deals and meet with executives from biotech and other health care companies. And according to the story by California HealthLine, after a few years of pandemic slack, the 2024 J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference regained its full vigor, drawing 8,304 attendees in early January to talk science, medicine, and, especially, money.

Of the 624 companies that pitched at the four-day conference, the biggest overflow crowd may have belonged to Nvidia, which unlike the others isn’t a health care company. Nvidia makes the silicon chips whose computing power, when paired with ginormous catalogs of genes, proteins, chemical sequences, and other data, will “revolutionize” drug-making, according to Kimberly Powell, the company’s vice president of health care.

Soon, she said, computers will customize drugs as “health care becomes a technology industry.” One might think that such advances could save money, but Powell’s emphasis was on their potential for wealth creation. “The world’s first trillion-dollar drug company is out there somewhere,” she dreamily opined.

Some health care systems are also hyping AI. The Mayo Clinic, for example, highlighted AI’s capacity to improve the accuracy of patient diagnoses. The nonprofit hospital system presented an electrocardiogram algorithm that can predict atrial fibrillation three months before an official diagnosis; another Mayo AI model can detect pancreatic cancer on scans earlier than a provider could, said Matthew Callstrom, chair of radiology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

No one really knows how far – or where – AI will take health care, but Nvidia’s recently announced $100 million deal with Amgen, which has access to 500 million human genomes, made some conference attendees uneasy. If Big Pharma can discover its own drugs, “biotech will disappear,” said Sherif Hanala of Seqens, a contract drug manufacturing company, during a lunch-table chat with California Healthline and others. Others shrugged off that notion.

The first AI algorithms beat clinicians at analyzing radiological scans in 2014. But since that year, “I haven’t seen a single AI company partner with pharma and complete a phase I human clinical trial,” said Alex Zhavoronkov, founder and CEO of Insilico Medicine – one of the companies using AI to do drug development. “Biology is hard.”

Nonprofit hospitals showed off their investment appeal at the conference. Fifteen health systems representing major players across the country touted their value and the audience was intrigued: When headliners like the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic took the stage, chairs were filled, and late arrivals crowded in the back of the room.

These hospitals, which are supposed to provide community benefits in exchange for not paying taxes, were eager to demonstrate financial stability and showcase money-making mechanisms besides patient care – they call it “revenue diversification.” PowerPoints skimmed through recent operating losses and lingered on the hospital systems’ vast cash reserves, expansion plans, and for-profit partnerships to commercialize research discoveries.

At Mass General Brigham, such research has led to the development of 36 drugs currently in clinical trials, according to the hospital’s presentation. The Boston-based health system, which has $4 billion in committed research funding, said its findings have led to the formation of more than 300 companies in the past decade.

Other nonprofit hospitals talked up institutes to draw new patients and expand into lucrative territories. Sutter Health, based in California, said it plans to add 30 facilities in attractive markets across Northern California in the next three years. It expanded to the Central Coast in October after acquiring the Sansum Clinic.