Astex vet Neil Thompson looks to build discovery from scratch at rare disease AI upstart out of Cambridge, UK
As a co-inventor of sildenafil — a pill originally designed to treat coronary hypertension — David Brown knows how big of an impact drug hunters can make when they take a therapy being used to treat one disease and direct it to another. After 40 years in the industry, repurposing is at the center of his latest rare disease venture at Healx.
And now, stepping the gas pedal on new discovery projects, Brown has recruited Neil Thompson as the Cambridge, UK-based startup’s new CSO.
Thompson, a 15-year veteran of Astex who’s been working as an independent consultant since its sale to Otsuka two years ago, joins an ambitious team of 35 that has its sight set on bringing forward 100 rare disease treatments by 2025.
“Healx has probably the most comprehensive AI platform bringing together information in rare diseases,” Thompson explains. “So it integrates the information around the disease, the public literature, patents, drugs, all that information and the algorithms tell us which drugs are most likely to work in which diseases. So it’s a great platform for a biologist like me to read the output and add that extra pharmacology, drug discovery expertise to interpret and focus the best compounds coming out of that prediction.”
It’s a twist on the AI-driven approach to drug discovery making the rounds, and its only financing round so far — a Series A totally $10 million — looks tiny compared to the recent megaround commanded by fellow British outfit BenevolentAI.
But Thompson says that’s more than enough at this stage for him to build out the team, with the key focus being hiring drug discovery and pharmacology experts to start assembling a portfolio. Under its business model, Healx will then collaborate with patient advocacy groups and biopharma companies to initiate clinical trials and ultimately commercialize the treatments.
So far the company, which is led by Brown as well as co-founder and CEO Tim Guilliams, boasts of one collaboration on fragile X syndrome, in which it delivered a clinic-ready asset within 15 months.
Moving forward, one key challenge in marrying AI with drug discovery will be fostering smooth teamwork among specialists in computation, bioinformatics biology and chemistry who can work together smoothly, Thompson acknowledges.
“I think the secret there is recruitment of the right individuals,” he said, people who are experts in their own area but ready to “peek out of the box,” communicate to others outside their field and be flexible. “It’s all about getting the right team together in an environment that is motivational but with clear objectives.”