CEO Virginia Burger (New Equilibrium Biosciences)

Bet­ting ear­ly on an AI niche, RA Cap­i­tal seeds a young founder's quest to un­lock 'Holy Grail' tar­gets

Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, with its grandiose claims and sweep­ing promis­es to rev­o­lu­tion­ize drug dis­cov­ery, may seem om­nipresent in bio­phar­ma now. But Vir­ginia Burg­er and RA Cap­i­tal be­lieve there are nich­es it has yet to touch.

Pe­ter Tom­pa

Af­ter tak­ing up res­i­den­cy at the star-stud­ded Boston ac­cel­er­a­tor Petri, Burg­er’s start­up — named New Equi­lib­ri­um Bio­sciences — has scored $10 mil­lion in seed cash from the VC firm to prove that by reach­ing in­to those cor­ners, they could un­cov­er drugs against “Holy Grail” tar­gets in every­thing from can­cer to neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­eases.

Specif­i­cal­ly, the biotech is in­ter­est­ed in a class of pro­teins called in­trin­si­cal­ly dis­or­dered pro­teins that doesn’t have a sin­gle fold­ed struc­ture. MYC, for in­stance, is a can­cer-caus­ing IDP.

“They break this par­a­digm of se­quence to struc­ture to func­tion be­cause it’s re­al­ly se­quence to mul­ti­ple of dif­fer­ent con­for­ma­tions which have many dif­fer­ent func­tions,” she told End­points News.

They can al­so range from ful­ly un­struc­tured to par­tial­ly struc­tured ones con­tain­ing a dis­or­dered re­gion, some­thing con­den­sate play­ers like Dew­point are fo­cused on.

Nathaniel Brooks Hor­witz

Crack­ing this spe­cial class, RA Cap­i­tal prin­ci­pal Nathaniel Brooks Hor­witz said, re­quired a new breed of com­pa­ny that in­te­grates AI in physics mod­eel­ing for drug dis­cov­ery, be­yond what the pi­o­neers — he counts Schrödinger, Re­lay, Sil­i­con  Atom­wise, Re­cur­sion and Ex­sci­en­tia among oth­ers — are do­ing.

“What we’re re­al­ly ex­cit­ed about is when a com­pa­ny like New Equi­lib­ri­um can en­able a tar­get about which we can say the fol­low­ing — ‘If on­ly we could de­vel­op a drug for this tar­get’ — we’re con­fi­dent it will be suc­cess­ful,” he said.

As a PhD in Pitts­burgh and lat­er post­doc at MIT, Burg­er would read pa­pers high­light­ing their im­por­tance as drug tar­gets. But they were so hard to tar­get that un­til mid­way through her post­doc, sci­en­tists weren’t even sure if lig­ands could bind to them — they wig­gle around too quick­ly to be even seen in ex­per­i­ments. Even when they did find mol­e­cules that bound weak­ly to the pro­teins, there was no re­al way to op­ti­mize them in­to drug can­di­dates.

Im­mersed in the en­tre­pre­neur­ial en­vi­ron­ment at MIT, it seemed nat­ur­al to build a start­up around the com­pu­ta­tion­al meth­ods she had been de­vel­op­ing to iden­ti­fy the set of con­for­ma­tions the pro­teins would switch be­tween. First, though, she took a job at XtalPi, the US-Chi­na AI biotech start­up backed by Ten­cent and lat­er Soft­Bank and Morn­ing­side.

It was dur­ing that two-year stint that she met Pe­ter Tom­pa, a pro­fes­sor at Flan­ders In­sti­tute for Biotech­nol­o­gy who’s de­vot­ed his ca­reer to study­ing IDP struc­ture and func­tion. He was in­ter­est­ed in start­ing a com­pa­ny to­geth­er.

Two weeks lat­er, she was out.

The first thing she did af­ter re­ceiv­ing fund­ing from Petri — an ac­cel­er­a­tor set up to tai­lor to the needs of young founders — was to buy quan­tum chem­i­cal soft­ware and start gen­er­at­ing their own train­ing da­ta for a new kind of physics mod­el.

Ex­ist­ing com­pu­ta­tion­al mod­els, Burg­er said, were built on what’s al­ready known about fold­ed struc­tures, which ren­ders them the wrong fit for in­trin­si­cal­ly dis­or­dered pro­teins. By us­ing AI to learn quan­tum chem­istry — the en­er­gies and forces on each atom that give rise to a shape at any giv­en mo­ment — New Equi­lib­ri­um’s al­go­rithms can “see,” in sil­i­co, thou­sands or even mil­lions of pos­si­ble struc­tures over time.

“We’re re­do­ing how sim­u­la­tions have been done in the past by re­build­ing the un­der­ly­ing sim­u­la­tion ar­chi­tec­ture to use AI for each step in­stead of in­tro­duc­ing a sin­gle — the stan­dard cal­cu­la­tion for each step,” she said.

The next step is to ze­ro in on the struc­tures that are more sta­ble or ap­pear more fre­quent­ly, screen lig­ands against them in a wet lab, and then fuse the frag­ments bind­ing to dif­fer­ent struc­tures in the same mol­e­cule. Burg­er can’t yet re­veal how many frag­ments they’d need for each drug made this way, but not­ed that the seed fund­ing will get them clos­er to pre­clin­i­cal can­di­dates.

For RA Cap­i­tal, the deal marks an­oth­er move in their shift to­ward ear­li­er stages of ven­ture fi­nanc­ing.

Quan­tum com­put­ing, Hor­witz not­ed, is loom­ing on the hori­zon with hard­ware start­ing to take shape. And the tech­nol­o­gy will ul­ti­mate­ly make it pos­si­ble to “ful­ly mod­el the true bio­phys­i­cal state of even the most com­plex mol­e­c­u­lar in­ter­ac­tions.”

“Which will be the com­pa­nies that are the first to use quan­tum com­put­ing and all the pow­er that brings to ra­tio­nal­ly de­sign med­i­cines for mean­ing­ful tar­gets?” he said. “I think New Equi­lib­ri­um can be that com­pa­ny.”

Health­care Dis­par­i­ties and Sick­le Cell Dis­ease

In the complicated U.S. healthcare system, navigating a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease can be remarkably challenging for patients and caregivers. When that illness is classified as a rare disease, those challenges can become even more acute. And when that rare disease occurs in a population that experiences health disparities, such as people with sickle cell disease (SCD) who are primarily Black and Latino, challenges can become almost insurmountable.

Jacob Van Naarden (Eli Lilly)

Ex­clu­sives: Eli Lil­ly out to crash the megablock­buster PD-(L)1 par­ty with 'dis­rup­tive' pric­ing; re­veals can­cer biotech buy­out

It’s taken 7 years, but Eli Lilly is promising to finally start hammering the small and affluent PD-(L)1 club with a “disruptive” pricing strategy for their checkpoint therapy allied with China’s Innovent.

Lilly in-licensed global rights to sintilimab a year ago, building on the China alliance they have with Innovent. That cost the pharma giant $200 million in cash upfront, which they plan to capitalize on now with a long-awaited plan to bust up the high-price market in lung cancer and other cancers that have created a market worth tens of billions of dollars.

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David Meek, new Mirati CEO (Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Fresh off Fer­Gene's melt­down, David Meek takes over at Mi­rati with lead KRAS drug rac­ing to an ap­proval

In the insular world of biotech, a spectacular failure can sometimes stay on any executive’s record for a long time. But for David Meek, the man at the helm of FerGene’s recent implosion, two questionable exits made way for what could be an excellent rebound.

Meek, most recently FerGene’s CEO and a past head at Ipsen, has become CEO at Mirati Therapeutics, taking the reins from founding CEO Charles Baum, who will step over into the role of president and head of R&D, according to a release.

FDA hands ac­cel­er­at­ed nod to Seagen, Gen­mab's so­lo ADC in cer­vi­cal can­cer, but com­bo stud­ies look even more promis­ing

Biopharma’s resident antibody-drug conjugate expert Seagen has scored a clutch of oncology approvals in recent years, finding gold in what are known as “third-gen” ADCs. Now, another of their partnered conjugates is ready for prime time.

The FDA on Monday handed an accelerated approval to Seagen and Genmab’s Tivdak (tisotumab vedotin-tftv, or “TV”) in second-line patients with recurrent or metastatic cervical cancer who previously progressed after chemotherapy rather than PD-(L)1 systemic therapy, the companies said in a release.

Rafaèle Tordjman (Jeito Capital)

Con­ti­nu­ity and di­ver­si­ty: Rafaèle Tord­j­man's women-led VC firm tops out first fund at $630M

For a first-time fund, Jeito Capital talks a lot about continuity.

Rafaèle Tordjman had spotlighted that concept ever since she started building the firm in 2018, promising to go the extra mile(s) with biotech entrepreneurs while pushing them to reach patients faster.

Coincidentally, the lack of continuity was one of the sore spots listed in a report about the European healthcare sector published that same year by the European Investment Bank — whose fund is one of the LPs, alongside the American pension fund Teacher Retirement System of Texas and Singapore’s Temasek, to help Jeito close its first fund at $630 million (€534 million). As previously reported, Sanofi had chimed in €50 million, marking its first investment in a French life sciences fund.

Dave Lennon, former president of Novartis Gene Therapies

Zol­gens­ma patent spat brews be­tween No­var­tis and Re­genxbio as top No­var­tis gene ther­a­py ex­ec de­parts

Regenxbio, a small licensor of gene therapy viral vectors spun out from the University of Pennsylvania, is now finding itself in the middle of some major league patent fights.

In addition to a patent suit with Sarepta Therapeutics from last September, Novartis, is now trying to push its smaller partner out of the way. The Swiss biopharma licensed Regenxbio’s AAV9 vector for its $2.1 million spinal muscular atrophy therapy Zolgensma.

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Time for round 2: Il­lu­mi­na-backed VC snags $325M for its next fund

Illumina Ventures closed off its second investment fund with a total commitment of $325 million, offering fresh fuel to back a slate of startups that have already included a smorgasbord of companies, covering everything from diagnostics to biotech drug development and genomics.

Fund II brings the total investment under Illumina Ventures’ oversight to $560 million, which has been focused on early-stage companies. And it has a transatlantic portfolio that includes SQZ, Twist and Encoded Therapeutics.

Volker Wagner (L) and Jeff Legos

As Bay­er, No­var­tis stack up their ra­dio­phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal da­ta at #ES­MO21, a key de­bate takes shape

Ten years ago, a small Norwegian biotech by the name of Algeta showed up at ESMO — then the European Multidisciplinary Cancer Conference 2011 — and declared that its Bayer-partnered targeted radionuclide therapy, radium-223 chloride, boosted the overall survival of castration-resistant prostate cancer patients with symptomatic bone metastases.

In a Phase III study dubbed ALSYMPCA, patients who were treated with radium-223 chloride lived a median of 14 months compared to 11.2 months. The FDA would stamp an approval on it based on those data two years later, after Bayer snapped up Algeta and christened the drug Xofigo.

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Raju Mohan, Ventyx Biosciences CEO

Months af­ter a mam­moth raise, Ven­tyx Bio­sciences dips back in­to ven­ture well

Several months after emerging from what CEO Raju Mohan called “quiet mode” with a mammoth $114 million raise, Ventyx Biosciences is now making its plans for the clinic loud and clear.

The California-based immune modulation player kicked the week off with a $51 million Series B, while also naming some key hires ahead of its big clinical push.

The CMO slot is going to Jörn Drappa, former CMO at Viela Bio before it was bought out by Horizon Therapeutics earlier this year. The AstraZeneca vet stayed on at Horizon for a while as executive VP of R&D before making the jump to Ventyx.