From L-R: Aaron Morris, Matt Robinson and Alpha Lee (PostEra)

A new AI start­up has emerged, and Pfiz­er likes what it sees

Aaron Mor­ris and Al­pha Lee met years ago while study­ing ap­plied math­e­mat­ics at Ox­ford Uni­ver­si­ty. They even­tu­al­ly went their sep­a­rate ways, with Mor­ris div­ing in­to ma­chine learn­ing ap­pli­ca­tions in fi­nance while Lee re­searched how it could trans­form med­i­c­i­nal chem­istry. But some­time around 2019, Mor­ris re­al­ized Lee was on­to some­thing.

“I think we sat down to­geth­er as co-founders in 2019 and said, ‘I think there’s a kind of suf­fi­cient sci­en­tif­ic depth here to mer­it form­ing a com­pa­ny around it,’” said Mor­ris, who’s now CEO of the com­pa­ny, PostEra.

On Tues­day, Mor­ris, Lee and their co-founder Matt Robin­son un­veiled a $24 mil­lion Se­ries A round to kick things off, as well as an ex­pand­ed part­ner­ship deal with Pfiz­er that will bring in an­oth­er $13 mil­lion up­front and up to $248 mil­lion in po­ten­tial mile­stones.

While a whole slate of com­pa­nies has emerged with promis­es to trans­form the drug dis­cov­ery process us­ing AI and ma­chine learn­ing — Mer­ck signed a pair of deals with Ab­sci just last week that could add up to $610 mil­lion in ad­di­tion to roy­al­ties — PostEra thinks it has a dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed ap­proach.

If you crude­ly break down the drug dis­cov­ery process — said Lee, who’s now CSO — it starts with find­ing a bi­o­log­i­cal tar­get, then it be­comes a chem­istry prob­lem where you’re look­ing for safe and ef­fec­tive small mol­e­cules against that tar­get, and then it be­comes a med­ical prob­lem where you’re run­ning clin­i­cal tri­als. PostEra is fo­cused square­ly on chem­istry.

“Now, with­in chem­istry, you have this very well-un­der­stood, de­sign-make-test cy­cle, which is de­sign­ing mol­e­cules, mak­ing them and test­ing them,” Lee said. “And many of the com­pa­nies in the space have ad­dressed one or maybe two of these dif­fer­ent com­po­nents of med­i­c­i­nal chem­istry, but PostEra is re­al­ly the first com­pa­ny to in­te­grate all three stages to­geth­er.”

Over the last 18 months, PostEra has inked sev­er­al part­ner­ships, most no­tably one with Pfiz­er back in De­cem­ber 2020. It has al­so worked on the de­vel­op­ment of an­tivi­rals in the COVID Moon­shot project, a non-prof­it, open-sci­ence con­sor­tium of sci­en­tists around the world with the goal of cre­at­ing af­ford­able and eas­i­ly-man­u­fac­tured an­tivi­rals against Covid-19.

While PostEra’s first part­ner­ship with Pfiz­er was fo­cused on in­no­va­tion around ma­chine learn­ing — as op­posed to push­ing drug dis­cov­ery pro­grams in­to the clin­ic — the ex­pan­sion of that deal will now pave the way for the es­tab­lish­ment of an AI Lab, where PostEra and Pfiz­er will work to­geth­er on mul­ti­ple drug dis­cov­ery pro­grams with an ini­tial fo­cus in on­col­o­gy and Covid-19 an­tivi­rals.

The Se­ries A funds will be used to hunt for new part­ner­ships, ex­pand the com­pa­ny’s cur­rent med­i­c­i­nal chem­istry plat­form, and kick off work on the com­pa­ny’s own in­ter­nal tar­gets. While the team is cur­rent­ly 10-large, Mor­ris ex­pects to dou­ble it by the end of the year.

“We’re re­al­ly try­ing to build a com­pa­ny here that bridges two very dif­fer­ent cul­tures,” Mor­ris said. “One of them is con­strued as a kind of com­pu­ta­tion­al en­gi­neer­ing type ap­proach. And then you’ve got the kind of more tra­di­tion­al med­i­c­i­nal chemists, and of­ten the two are put in an an­tag­o­nis­tic re­la­tion­ship with each oth­er try­ing to prove who’s bet­ter. I think what we’re try­ing to build at PostEra is a new mod­ern 21st-cen­tu­ry bio­phar­ma com­pa­ny that re­spects both.”

Pi­o­neer­ing Click Chem­istry in Hu­mans

Reimagining cancer treatments

Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for nearly 10 million deaths in 2020, which is nearly one in six deaths. Recently, we have seen incredible advances in novel cancer therapies such as immune checkpoint inhibitors, cell therapies, and antibody-drug conjugates that have revamped cancer care and improved survival rates for patients.

Despite this significant progress in therapeutic targeting, why are we still seeing such a high mortality rate? The reason is that promising therapies are often limited by their therapeutic index, which is a measure of the effective dose of a drug, relative to its safety. If we could broaden the therapeutic indices of currently available medicines, it would revolutionize cancer treatments. We are still on the quest to find the ultimate cancer medicine – highly effective in several cancer types, safe, and precisely targeted to the tumor site.

Ivan Cheung, Eisai US chairman and CEO

Bio­gen, Ei­sai re­fresh amy­loid hy­poth­e­sis with PhI­II show­ing Alzheimer's med slows cog­ni­tive de­cline

In the first look at Phase III data for lecanemab, Eisai and Biogen’s follow-up Alzheimer’s drug to the embattled Aduhelm launch, results show the drug passed with flying colors on a test looking at memory, problem solving and other dementia metrics.

One of the most-watched Alzheimer’s therapies in the clinic, lecanemab met the study’s primary goal on the CDR-SB — Clinical Dementia Rating-Sum of Boxes — giving the biotech the confidence to ask for full approval in the US, EU and Japan by next March 31. The experimental drug reduced clinical decline on the scale by 27% compared to placebo at 18 months, the companies said Tuesday night Eastern time and Wednesday morning in Japan.

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Gilead names 'k­ing­pin­s' in coun­ter­feit HIV med law­suit

Gilead is mounting its counterfeit drug lawsuit, naming two “kingpins” and a complex network of conspirators who allegedly sold imitation bottles of its HIV meds, some of which ended up in US pharmacies.

The pharma giant on Wednesday provided an update on what it called a “large-scale, sophisticated counterfeiting conspiracy,” accusing two new defendants of “leading and orchestrating” a scheme to sell hundreds of millions of dollars in illegitimate drugs posing as meds such as Biktarvy and Descovy.

Nooman Haque, head of life sciences and healthcare at Silicon Valley Bank, and John Carroll

I’m head­ed to Lon­don soon for #EU­BIO22. Care to join me?

It was great getting back to a live ESMO conference/webinar in Paris followed by a live pop-up event for the Endpoints 11 in Boston. We’re staying on the road in October with our return for a live/streaming EUBIO22 in London.

Silicon Valley Bank’s Nooman Haque and I are once again jumping back into the thick of it with a slate of virtual and live events on October 12. I’ll get the ball rolling with a virtual fireside chat with Novo Nordisk R&D chief Marcus Schindler, covering their pipeline plans and BD work.

Phillip Gomez, Siga Technologies CEO

Siga nabs $10.7M from the US gov­ern­ment in deal for its mon­key­pox an­tivi­ral

The US government is all set to buy $10.7 million worth of Siga Technologies’ monkeypox oral antiviral, the company announced Thursday.

Of the total doses, $5.1 million worth of oral antivirals called Tpoxx (tecovirimat) will be delivered this year, with the US Department of Defense having the option of buying the rest at a later point.

The new contract follows an earlier one in which the government had purchased $7.4 million worth of Tpoxx from the company.

Marcelo Bigal, Ventus Therapeutics CEO

No­vo Nordisk joins No­var­tis, Roche in NL­RP3 are­na, bet­ting $70M cash on NASH, car­diometa­bol­ic us­es

As a drug target, the NLRP3 inflammasome has drawn serious interest from Big Pharma, inspiring a series of M&A deals from Novartis and Roche on top of venture investments by others. Now Novo Nordisk is jumping on the bandwagon — and the Danish pharma giant is taking the target where it knows best.

Novo Nordisk is getting its NLRP3 inhibitors from Ventus Therapeutics, a Versant-backed startup that set out to make some of the best NLRP3 drugs out there by incorporating new insights into the structure of the target complex.

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Vlad Coric, Biohaven CEO (Photo Credit: Andrew Venditti)

As Amy­lyx de­ci­sion waits in the wings, Bio­haven’s ALS drug sinks (again) in plat­form tri­al

The FDA’s decision on Amylyx’s ALS drug is set to come out sometime Thursday. In a space with few drugs, any approval would be a major landmark.

But elsewhere in the ALS field, things are a bit more tepid.

Thursday morning, Biohaven announced that its drug verdiperstat failed its arm of an ALS platform trial led by Massachusetts General Hospital. According to a press release, the drug did not meet its primary endpoint — improvement on an ALS functional status test — or any key secondary endpoints at 24 weeks. The trial had enrolled 167 patients, giving them either verdiperstat or placebo twice a day.

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Renhong Tang, Simcere co-CEO

Almi­rall part­ners up with Sim­cere in po­ten­tial $500M+ deal — with plans to take IL-2 can­di­date glob­al

A Chinese pharma is looking to go international with one of its preclinical candidates, and it’s teaming up with a Spanish company in a new pact potentially worth half a billion dollars to do just that.

Simcere and Almirall announced Thursday that the two companies had reached a deal for Simcere’s IL-2 mutant fusion protein drug candidate, called SIM0278. According to a statement, Almirall gets an exclusive right to develop and commercialize the drug candidate in all indications and markets outside of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau.

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Work taking place in the clean rooms at Vor (Credit: Vor)

Vor Bio opts to keep man­u­fac­tur­ing op­er­a­tions in-house for de­vel­op­ing stem cell, CAR-T ther­a­pies

While it is not uncommon for a biotech to go down the route of having the product manufactured by a contract organization, one small biotech is looking to keep its card close to its chest.

Vor Biopharma has started manufacturing operations at an in-house facility at its HQ in Cambridge, MA after beginning construction last summer.

According to the biotech, the facility aims to develop Vor’s hematopoietic stem cells (eHSCs) and CAR-T therapies for patients with blood cancers. The site will initially manufacture a clinical supply of its candidate VCAR33allo to support its IND, which is slated to be submitted in the first half of next year. It also plans to transfer the production of VOR33 to the facility. Vor is getting to work quickly as engineering runs for VCAR33allo has started this week.