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.

Com­mu­ni­cat­ing the val­ue of pre­ci­sion med­i­cine

By Natasha Cowan, Content Marketing Manager at Blue Latitude Health.
Many stakeholders are confused by novel precision medicines, including patients and healthcare professionals. So, how can industry help them to navigate this complexity?

Precision medicine represents a new paradigm in healthcare. It embodies the shift from treating many patients with the same therapy, to having the tools to identify the best treatment for every patient.

(Image: Associated Press)

Amarin emerges from an ex­pert pan­el re­view with a clear en­dorse­ment for Vas­cepa and high odds of suc­cess when the FDA weighs in for­mal­ly

Several FDA experts who gathered Thursday to consider the landmark approval of Vascepa to reduce cardio events in an at-risk population voiced their unease about various aspects of the efficacy and safety data, or ultimately the population it should be used to treat. But the overwhelming belief that the data pointed to the drug’s benefit and clearly outweighed risks carried the day for Amarin.

The panel voted unanimously (16 to 0) to support the company’s positive data presentation — backing an OK for expanding the label to include reducing cardio risk. The vote points Amarin $AMRN down a short path to a formal decision by the FDA, with the odds heavily in its favor. Chances are the rest of the questions about the future of this drug will be hashed out in the label’s small print.

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What does $62B buy you these days? A lot, says Take­da ex­ecs as the phar­ma play­er promis­es a block­buster R&D fu­ture

First comes the $62 billion buyout. Then comes the asset auction and reorganization to pay down debt. Now comes the detailed pledge of a bigger, brighter future in drug development.

That’s where Takeda finds itself on R&D day today, about 11 months after closing on their Shire acquisition. R&D chief Andy Plump is joining CEO Christophe Weber and other top members of the team to outline a new set of priorities in the greatly expanded pipeline at Takeda, which has jumped into the top ranks of the world’s pharma giants in the wake of the Shire deal.

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BeiGene CEO John Oyler at an Endpoints event in Shanghai, October 2018 (Credit: Endpoints News/PharmCube)

UP­DAT­ED: Chi­na's BeiGene scores first-ever FDA ap­proval — but can they carve up J&J's block­buster fran­chise?

Weeks after Amgen took a $2.7 billion stake in BeiGene, the Beijing-based biotech has secured its first-ever FDA approval for zanubrutinib, a BTK inhibitor, months ahead of schedule.

BeiGene’s drug, branded as Brukinsa, has secured accelerated approval for adult patients with mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) — a typically aggressive, rare, form of blood cancer — who have received at least one prior therapy.

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Spe­cial re­port: Twen­ty ex­tra­or­di­nary women in bio­phar­ma R&D who worked their way to the top

What differentiates a woman leader in biopharma R&D from a man?

Not much, except there are fewer of them in senior posts. Data suggest women are not more risk-averse, family-oriented or less confident than their male counterparts — indeed the differences between the two sexes are negligible. But a glance at the top R&D positions in Big Pharma leaves little doubt that upward migration in the executive ranks of biopharma R&D is tough.

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GSK's asth­ma bi­o­log­ic Nu­cala scores in rare blood dis­or­der study

GlaxoSmithKline’s asthma drug Nucala, which received a resounding FDA rejection for use in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) last year, has shown promise in a rare blood disorder.

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Mer­ck buys a fledg­ling neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive biotech spawned by an old GSK dis­cov­ery al­liance. What’s up with that?

Avalon Ventures chief Jay Lichter has a well-known yen for drug development programs picked up in academia. And what he found in Haoxing Xu’s lab at the University of Michigan pricked his interest enough to launch one of his umbrella biotechs in San Diego.

Xu’s work laid the foundation for Avalon to launch Calporta, which has been working on finding small molecule agonists of TRPML1 (transient receptor potential cation channel, mucolipin subfamily, member 1) for lysosomal storage disorders. And that pathway, they believe, points to new approaches on major market neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, ALS and Alzheimer’s.

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Carson Block. Muddy Waters via YouTube

Shorts ga­lore: Mud­dy Wa­ters sees slide for Pep­tiDream, tweets con­cerns about Fi­bro­Gen's new da­ta

The short seller Muddy Waters is taking aim at Japan’s most profitable biotech, projecting a slide for a company that has skyrocketed over the last four years. Meanwhile, the firm tweeted out an analysis accusing FibroGen of manipulating data to obscure safety concerns in their latest reveal, although some investors seem satisfied by the biotech’s explanation.

Muddy Waters shorted PeptiDream, a Japanese biotech-for-hire that leveraged its peptide library into partnerships with some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, a 50% profit margin and $6 billion valuation. The firm noted that despite its esteem, PeptiDream has failed to bring a drug to market 13 years after its 2006 launch (although this is not especially rare for biotech).

Pin­cer move­ment: Cal­i­for­nia biotech gets $35M to suf­fo­cate can­cer in co­or­di­nat­ed at­tack

Having served in Afghanistan, the navy veteran leading California-based EpicentRx wants to leave no patient behind with his arsenal of anti-cancer drugs. On Thursday, the company was given a $35 million boost to further its mission.

The injection of funds will be used to shepherd its late-stage CD47 drug, RRx-001, to the FDA for marketing, and its oncolytic virus program into the clinic.

RRx-001, engineered as an agent that makes tumor cells more sensitive to therapy, is in a Phase III trial in combination with chemotherapy for use in third-line and beyond small cell lung cancer (SCLC). The drug has been granted orphan drug designation from FDA for SCLC, neuroendocrine cancer and glioblastoma.