Biotech uni­corn's 'brain' at­tracts a $115M mega-round as in­vestors em­brace AI up­start

Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence in drug de­vel­op­ment is still gain­ing mo­men­tum. Just ask Benev­o­len­tAI, which has brought in a new $115 mil­lion round for its tech­nol­o­gy that promis­es to process vast amounts of bio­science in­for­ma­tion and churn out new dis­cov­er­ies.

Ken Mul­vany

Backed by new, undis­closed in­vestors from the Unit­ed States as well as ex­ist­ing sup­port­ers like Wood­ford In­vest­ment Man­age­ment, the round puts Lon­don-based Benev­o­len­tAI at a pre-mon­ey val­u­a­tion of $2 bil­lion. The syn­di­cate fea­tures a mix of fam­i­ly of­fices and some strate­gic back­ers but not “more tra­di­tion­al VCs,” TechCrunch re­ports.

Since its found­ing in 2013, the biotech has raised more than $200 mil­lion. The new cash will go in­to scal­ing its drug de­vel­op­ment ac­tiv­i­ties, broad­en­ing fo­cus dis­ease area, and ex­tend its plat­form ca­pa­bil­i­ties — not just in phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals but al­so in ma­te­r­i­al sci­ence, en­er­gy and agri­cul­ture.

De­spite con­tin­ued skep­ti­cism and scruti­ny as to how much AI can shave off the painful­ly lengthy drug de­vel­op­ment process and in­crease suc­cess rates, it con­tin­ues to in­spire en­thu­si­asm es­pe­cial­ly in Big Phar­ma, where ex­ecs are al­ways look­ing for ways to trim spend­ing. In fact, J&J hand­ed some clin­i­cal-stage drug can­di­dates for Benev­o­len­tAI to guide de­vel­op­ment back in 2016 with plans to start Phase IIb tri­als last year.

Jack­ie Hunter

The core of Benev­o­len­tAI’s promise is an AI “brain” that now holds “50 bil­lion bi­o­log­i­cal da­ta points and com­plex bi­o­log­i­cal con­cepts – the world’s largest most so­phis­ti­cat­ed bio­science knowl­edge graph,” founder and chair­man Ken Mul­vany writes in a blog post. “The tech­nol­o­gy that sits on this knowl­edge is able to gen­er­ate new in­sights in­to the cause of dis­ease at a scale not pos­si­ble for hu­man be­ings.”

Un­der the lead­er­ship of GSK vet Jack­ie Hunter, Benev­o­len­tAI is work­ing on 22 pro­grams across ar­eas span­ning Parkin­son’s dis­ease, mo­tor neu­ron dis­ease, glioblas­toma and sar­cope­nia, though on­ly two are in ad­vanced stages.

Re­cent­ly, the com­pa­ny ac­quired a drug dis­cov­ery and de­vel­op­ment fa­cil­i­ty on the Babra­ham Re­search Cam­pus in Cam­bridge, UK, bring­ing a new sci­en­tif­ic team and late-stage clin­i­cal test­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties in­to its fold. Mul­vany told TechCrunch that he hopes to al­most dou­ble the size of the team by the end of the year, from 155 to 300.

“We have come a very long way since we found­ed the busi­ness in 2013. The ca­pa­bil­i­ties of our tech­nol­o­gy didn’t ex­ist 6 years ago,” he said in a state­ment.

It’s fi­nal­ly over: Bio­gen, Ei­sai scrap big Alzheimer’s PhI­I­Is af­ter a pre­dictable BACE cat­a­stro­phe rais­es safe­ty fears

Months after analysts and investors called on Biogen and Eisai to scrap their BACE drug for Alzheimer’s and move on in the wake of a string of late-stage failures and rising safety fears, the partners have called it quits. And they said they were dropping the drug — elenbecestat — after the independent monitoring board raised concerns about…safety.

We don’t know exactly what researchers found in this latest catastrophe, but the companies noted in their release that investigators had determined that the drug was flunking the risk/benefit analysis.

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It's not per­fect, but it's a good start: FDA pan­elists large­ly en­dorse Aim­mune's peanut al­ler­gy ther­a­py

Two days after a fairly benign review from FDA staff, an independent panel of experts largely endorsed the efficacy and safety of Aimmune’s peanut allergy therapy, laying the groundwork for approval with a risk evaluation and mitigation strategy (REMS).

Traditionally, peanut allergies are managed by avoidance, but the threat of accidental exposure cannot be nullified. Some allergists have devised a way to dose patients off-label with peanut protein derived from supermarket products to wean them off their allergies. The idea behind Aimmune’s product was to standardize the peanut protein, and track the process of desensitization — so when accidental exposure in the real world invariably occurs, patients are less likely to experience a life-threatening allergic reaction.

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Rit­ter bombs fi­nal PhI­II for sole lac­tose in­tol­er­ance drug — shares plum­met

More than two years ago Ritter Pharmaceuticals managed to find enough silver lining in its Phase IIb/III study — after missing the top-line mark — to propel its lactose intolerance toward a confirmatory trial. But as it turned out, the enthusiasm only set the biotech and its investors up to be sorely disappointed.

This time around there’s little left to salvage. Not only did RP-G28 fail to beat placebo in reducing lactose intolerance symptoms, patients in the treatment group actually averaged a smaller improvement. On a composite score measuring symptoms like abdominal pain, cramping, bloating and gas, patients given the drug had a mean reduction of 3.159 while the placebo cohort saw a 3.420 drop on average (one-sided p-value = 0.0106).

Ear­ly snap­shot of Ad­verum's eye gene ther­a­py sparks con­cern about vi­sion loss

An early-stage update on Adverum Biotechnologies’ intravitreal gene therapy has triggered investor concern, after patients with wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) saw their vision deteriorate, despite signs that the treatment is improving retinal anatomy.

Adverum, on Wednesday, unveiled 24-week data from the OPTIC trial of its experimental therapy, ADVM-022, in six patients who have been administered with one dose of the therapy. On average, patients in the trial had severe disease with an average of 6.2 anti-VEGF injections in the eight months prior to screening and an average annualized injection frequency of 9.3 injections.

Alex Ar­faei trades his an­a­lyst's post for a new role as biotech VC; Sanofi vet heads to Vi­for

Too often, Alex Arfaei arrived too late. 

An analyst at BMO Capital Markets, he’d meet with biotech or pharmaceutical heads for their IPO or secondary funding and his brain, trained on a biology degree and six years at Merck and Endo, would spring with questions: Why this biomarker? Why this design? Why not this endpoint? Not that he could do anything about it. These execs were coming for clinical money; their decisions had been made and finalized long ago.

Arde­lyx bags its first FDA OK for IBS, set­ting up a show­down with Al­ler­gan, Iron­wood

In the first of what it hopes will be a couple of major regulatory milestones for its new drug, Ardelyx has bagged an FDA approval to market Ibsrela (tenapanor) for irritable bowel syndrome.

The drug’s first application will be for IBS with constipation (IBS-C), inhibiting sodium-hydrogen exchanger NHE3 in the GI tract in such a way as to increase bowel movements and decrease abdominal pain. This comes on the heels of two successful Phase III trials.

Ver­tex deal for Scot­land — no deal for Eng­land

Cystic fibrosis (CF) drug maker Vertex Pharmaceuticals — which is still locked in negotiation with NHS England to endorse the use of its medicines — has successfully negotiated a deal with Scottish authorities.

A month ago, the Scottish Medicines Consortium spurned two of the company’s medicines — Orkambi and Symkevi — citing uncertainty over their long-term efficacy in relation to their cost.

Lisa M. DeAngelis, MSKCC

MSK picks brain can­cer ex­pert Lisa DeAn­ge­lis as its next CMO — fol­low­ing José Basel­ga’s con­tro­ver­sial ex­it

It’s official. Memorial Sloan Kettering has picked a brain cancer expert as its new physician-in-chief and CMO, replacing José Baselga, who left under a cloud after being singled out by The New York Times and ProPublica for failing to properly air his lucrative industry ties.

His replacement, who now will be in charge of MSK’s cutting-edge research work as well as the cancer care delivered by hundreds of practitioners, is Lisa M. DeAngelis. DeAngelis had been chair of the neurology department and co-founder of MSK’s brain tumor center and was moved in to the acting CMO role in the wake of Baselga’s departure.

Penn team adapts CAR-T tech, reengi­neer­ing mouse cells to treat car­diac fi­bro­sis

After establishing itself as one of the pioneer research centers in the world for CAR-T cancer therapies, creating new attack vehicles to eradicate cancer cells, a team at Penn Medicine has begun the tricky transition of using the basic technology for heart repair work.

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