AI team at In­sil­i­co gets some ma­jor league back­ing from Chi­na as Alex Zha­voronkov builds glob­al net­work

Some of Asia’s top biotech in­vestors are back­ing Alex Zha­voronkov’s AI shop at In­sil­i­co Med­i­cine.

It’s a long way from a megaround, falling in­to an un­spec­i­fied slot in the $5 mil­lion to $10 mil­lion range, but Zha­voronkov has al­lied him­self with some of the most in­ter­est­ing peo­ple in drug de­vel­op­ment. And he’s us­ing this new mon­ey to ex­pand his glob­al net­work of AI ex­perts as he im­me­di­ate­ly be­gins to go af­ter a new raise to back a big­ger game plan.

Ge Li

This new round is led by WuXi AppTec, the high-fly­ing dis­cov­ery and de­vel­op­ment out­fit based in Shang­hai and helmed by Ge Li, who of­fered an in­flu­en­tial shout out by not­ing that the two com­pa­nies share a “mu­tu­al vi­sion that ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and ma­chine learn­ing will op­ti­mize the drug dis­cov­ery process by in­creas­ing the prob­a­bil­i­ty of suc­cess at the pre-clin­i­cal lev­el.”

Sin­ga­pore’s Temasek al­so got in­volved, along with Pe­ter Dia­man­dis’ — of X Prize fame — BOLD Cap­i­tal. Longevi­ty biotech Ju­ve­nes­cence, backed by UK bil­lion­aire Jim Mel­lon and al­lied with Zha­voronkov’s AI op­er­a­tion, al­so came back to chip in­to the round.

“We have col­lab­o­rat­ed with WuXi for over a year now,” Zha­voronkov tells me, “we know them.”

Be­fore Ge Li and his col­leagues de­cid­ed to back the AI shop, he ex­plained in a pre­view to the an­nounce­ment, they start­ed out a year ago val­i­dat­ing their work us­ing known path­ways. Zha­voronkov has been us­ing ma­chine learn­ing to build mol­e­cules, and he start­ed out by prov­ing that he could do it on projects with well un­der­stood bi­ol­o­gy. Now that they’ve passed that test, WuXi and In­sil­i­co are go­ing in­to vir­gin ter­ri­to­ry, build­ing new mol­e­cules aimed at or­phan tar­gets “from scratch” us­ing a neur­al net­work as they build a new dis­cov­ery plat­form with WuXi’s top chemists.

Zha­voronkov poured every­thing he has in­to the com­pa­ny to get it start­ed, and these grow­ing in­ter­na­tion­al con­nec­tions are cen­tral to build­ing the com­pa­ny. In­sil­i­co now has 52 staffers spread from new of­fices in Rockville, MD in­to Eu­rope, Rus­sia and Asia, where a team of 6 work in Tai­wan. His next step, he says, is aimed right at the ex­plod­ing Chi­nese mar­ket.

In AI, he says, “if you’re not in Chi­na now, you’re not go­ing to ex­ist.”

In the mean­time, he’s fo­cused on build­ing his busi­ness de­vel­op­ment team, look­ing to re­cruit some new play­ers.

AI shops have been boom­ing is a va­ri­ety of big op­er­a­tions con­sid­er the ways the tech­nol­o­gy can be used to stream­line drug de­vel­op­ment and im­prove odds of suc­cess — a propo­si­tion that still has a con­sid­er­able ways to go be­fore we start see­ing how it can af­fect the out­put of new drugs that go in­to hu­man test­ing. For big com­pa­nies deeply en­gaged in dis­cov­ery, though, it re­mains a com­pelling ap­proach to pipeline build­ing.

Just a few weeks ago Zha­voronkov al­lied with George Church on a col­lab­o­ra­tion mix­ing Neb­u­la Ge­nomics’ blockchain work with his deep learn­ing ex­perts to build a new plat­form for health­care da­ta. And he con­tin­ues to build re­la­tions with some of the most close­ly watched de­vel­op­ers in the in­dus­try, in­clud­ing Glax­o­SmithK­line.

Im­age: Alex Zha­voronkov. HEALTH TECH­NOLO­GIES TV via YOUTUBE

UP­DAT­ED: FDA’s golodirsen CRL: Sarep­ta’s Duchenne drugs are dan­ger­ous to pa­tients, of­fer­ing on­ly a small ben­e­fit. And where's that con­fir­ma­to­ry tri­al?

Back last summer, Sarepta CEO Doug Ingram told Duchenne MD families and investors that the FDA’s shock rejection of their second Duchenne MD drug golodirsen was due to some concerns regulators raised about the risk of infection and the possibility of kidney toxicity. But when pressed to release the letter for all to see, he declined, according to a report from BioPharmaDive, saying that kind of move “might not look like we’re being as respectful as we’d like to be.”

He went on to assure everyone that he hadn’t misrepresented the CRL.

But Ingram’s public remarks didn’t include everything in the letter, which — following the FDA’s surprise about-face and unexplained approval — has now been posted on the FDA’s website and broadly circulated on Twitter early Wednesday.

The CRL raises plenty of fresh questions about why the FDA abruptly decided to reverse itself and hand out an OK for a drug a senior regulator at the FDA believed — 5 months ago, when he wrote the letter — is dangerous to patients. It also puts the spotlight back on Sarepta $SRPT, which failed to launch a confirmatory study of eteplirsen, which was only approved after a heated internal controversy at the FDA. Ellis Unger, director of CDER’s Office of Drug Evaluation I, notes that study could have clarified quite a lot about the benefit and risks associated with their drugs — which can cost as much as a million dollars per patient per year, depending on weight.

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2019 Trin­i­ty Drug In­dex Eval­u­ates Ac­tu­al Com­mer­cial Per­for­mance of Nov­el Drugs Ap­proved in 2016

Fewer Approvals, but Neurology Rivals Oncology and Sees Major Innovations

This report, the fourth in our Trinity Drug Index series, outlines key themes and emerging trends in the industry as we progress towards a new world of targeted and innovative products. It provides a comprehensive evaluation of the performance of novel drugs approved by the FDA in 2016, scoring each on its commercial performance, therapeutic value, and R&D investment (Table 1: Drug ranking – Ratings on a 1-5 scale).

How to cap­i­talise on a lean launch

For start-up biotechnology companies and resource stretched pharmaceutical organisations, launching a novel product can be challenging. Lean teams can make setting a launch strategy and achieving your commercial goals seem like a colossal undertaking, but can these barriers be transformed into opportunities that work to your brand’s advantage?
We spoke to Managing Consultant Frances Hendry to find out how Blue Latitude Health partnered with a fledgling subsidiary of a pharmaceutical organisation to launch an innovative product in a
complex market.
What does the launch environment look like for this product?
FH: We started working on the product at Phase II and now we’re going into Phase III trials. There is a significant unmet need in this disease area, and everyone is excited about the launch. However, the organisation is still evolving and the team is quite small – naturally this causes a little turbulence.

Stephen Hahn, AP

The FDA has de­val­ued the gold stan­dard on R&D. And that threat­ens every­one in drug de­vel­op­ment

Bioregnum Opinion Column by John Carroll

A few weeks ago, when Stephen Hahn was being lightly queried by Senators in his confirmation hearing as the new commissioner of the FDA, he made the usual vow to maintain the gold standard in drug development.

Neatly summarized, that standard requires the agency to sign off on clinical data — usually from two, well-controlled human studies — that prove a drug’s benefit outweighs any risks.

Over the last few years, biopharma has enjoyed an unprecedented loosening over just what it takes to clear that bar. Regulators are more willing to drop the second trial requirement ahead of an accelerated approval — particularly if they have an unmet medical need where patients are clamoring for a therapy.

That confirmatory trial the FDA demands can wait a few years. And most everyone in biopharma would tell you that’s the right thing for patients. They know its a tonic for everyone in the industry faced with pushing a drug through clinical development. And it’s helped inspire a global biotech boom.

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UP­DAT­ED: New play­ers are jump­ing in­to the scram­ble to de­vel­op a vac­cine as pan­dem­ic pan­ic spreads fast

When the CNN news crew in Wuhan caught wind of the Chinese government’s plan to quarantine the city of 11 million people, they made a run for one of the last trains out — their Atlanta colleagues urging them on. On the way to the train station, they were forced to skirt the local seafood market, where the coronavirus at the heart of a brewing outbreak may have taken root.

And they breathlessly reported every moment of the early morning dash.

In shuttering the city, triggering an exodus of masked residents who caught wind of the quarantine ahead of time, China signaled that they were prepared to take extreme actions to stop the spread of a virus that has claimed 17 lives, sickened many more and panicked people around the globe.

CNN helped illustrate how hard all that can be.

The early reaction in the biotech industry has been classic, with small-cap companies scrambling to headline efforts to step in fast. But there are also new players in the field with new tech that has been introduced since the last of a series of pandemic panics that could change the usual storylines. And they’re volunteering for a crash course in speeding up vaccine development — a field where overnight solutions have been impossible to prove.

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Mer­ck KGaA spin­out gets first fund­ing to bring dual-act­ing can­cer mol­e­cules in­to the clin­ic

Two and a half years after launch, Merck KGaA spinout iOnctura is getting its first major round of funding.

The oncology startup raised €15 million ($16.6 million) to put its lead drug into the clinic and get its second drug past IND-enabling tests. INKEF Capital and VI Partners co-led the round and were joined by the biotech’s longtime backer M Ventures, an arm of Merck KGaA, and Schroder Adveq.

UP­DAT­ED: Eli Lil­ly’s $1.6B can­cer drug failed to spark even the slight­est pos­i­tive gain for pa­tients in its 1st PhI­II

Eli Lilly had high hopes for its pegylated IL-10 drug pegilodecakin when it bought Armo last year for $1.6 billion in cash. But after reporting a few months ago that it had failed a Phase III in pancreatic cancer, without the data, its likely value has plunged. And now we’re getting some exact data that underscore just how little positive effect it had.

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Am­gen aug­ments Asia foothold by tak­ing over Astel­las joint ven­ture in Japan

California-based Amgen, which does the bulk of its business in the United States, made its ambition to reinvigorate its growth prospects by expanding its presence in Asia clear at the sidelines of the JP Morgan healthcare conference in San Francisco earlier this month.

The Thousand Oaks-based company on Thursday executed its plan to dissolve the joint venture with Astellas — created in 2013 — to operate the unit independently in Japan. With its rapidly aging population, the region represents an appealing market for Amgen’s osteoporosis treatments Prolia and Evenity as well as a cholesterol-lowering injection Repatha.

Daphne Zohar (PureTech)

PureTech bags $200M from sale of Karuna shares — still siz­zling from promis­ing schiz­o­phre­nia da­ta

Cashing in on the exuberance around Karuna Therapeutics and its potential blockbuster CNS drug, PureTech has sold a chunk of the biotech’s shares to Goldman Sachs for $200 million.

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