Can AI ac­cel­er­ate drug R&D? J&J of­fers up some mol­e­cules to try it on

Jack­ie Hunter

Lon­don-based Benev­o­len­tAI be­lieves it has built the kind of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence tech that will al­low it to iden­ti­fy and de­vel­op drugs faster and bet­ter than any group of mere sci­en­tif­ic mor­tals can hope for. And now J&J is hand­ing over some ex­per­i­men­tal mol­e­cules it needs to prove it’s right.

The up­start joins a long line scram­bling to ap­ply vast amounts of com­pu­ta­tion­al pow­er to­wards drug de­vel­op­ment. Their goal is to ush­er in the long-await­ed “phar­ma 2.0” and fi­nal­ly bend the ex­pen­sive curve of late-stage tri­al fail­ure. It’s un­clear how Benev­o­len­tAI’s al­go­rithms are any bet­ter at eval­u­at­ing the po­ten­tial of any small-mol­e­cule than oth­er com­pu­ta­tion­al­ly-tax­ing ap­proach­es de­vel­oped by oth­er groups — and it’s all dri­ven by the da­ta. While there’s plen­ty of sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture ripe for min­ing for new in­sight, there’s still the mat­ter of ac­tion­able and pro­pri­etary da­ta sit­ting locked away in­side com­pet­i­tive bio­phar­ma servers.

New­ly ap­point­ed CEO Jack­ie Hunter, a GSK vet, will steer Benev­o­len­tAI as it gets a li­cense to some of the J&J’s clin­i­cal-stage drug can­di­dates (we don’t know which ones) along with the patents they need to con­trol own­er­ship. Now they plan to use what they’ve de­vel­oped in AI and deep learn­ing to guide de­vel­op­ment and col­lect clin­i­cal da­ta, claim­ing they’ll start Phase IIb tri­als in mid-2017.

J&J’s Lon­don in­no­va­tion cen­ter, one of four it’s es­tab­lished around the globe to help fos­ter plans to soak up new tech­nolo­gies for its own am­bi­tious R&D plans, helped or­ches­trate the deal. Benev­o­len­tAI is based in the ‘Knowl­edge Quar­ter’ tech clus­ter in Kings Cross.

Hunter had this to say: “The agree­ment adds fur­ther depth to our clin­i­cal and pre-clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment pipeline and marks a very ex­cit­ing time for the role of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to ben­e­fit sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery and hu­man­i­ty. The com­pounds come with a wealth of clin­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal da­ta that en­ables Benev­o­len­tAI to have fur­ther in­sights in­to the bi­ol­o­gy of dis­eases. Se­cur­ing these nov­el clin­i­cal drug can­di­dates per­fect­ly aligns with our strat­e­gy of de­vel­op­ing first-in-class and best-in-class strat­i­fied med­i­cines to help pa­tients with high un­met needs.”

Here comes the oral GLP-1 drug for di­a­betes — but No­vo Nordisk is­n't dis­clos­ing Ry­bel­sus price just yet

Novo Nordisk’s priority review voucher on oral semaglutide has paid off. The FDA approval for the GLP-1 drug hit late Friday morning, around six months after the NDA filing.

Rybelsus will be the first GLP-1 pill to enter the type 2 diabetes market — a compelling offering that analysts have pegged as a blockbuster drug with sales estimates ranging from $2 billion to $5 billion.

Ozempic, the once-weekly injectable formulation of semaglutide, brought in around $552 million (DKK 3.75 billion) in the first half of 2019.

As Nas­daq en­rolls the fi­nal batch of 2019 IPOs, how have the num­bers com­pared to past years?

IGM Biosciences’ upsized IPO haul, coming after SpringWorks’ sizable public debut, has revved up some momentum for the last rush of biotech IPOs in 2019.

With 39 new listings on the books and roughly two more months to go before winding down, Nasdaq’s head of healthcare listings Jordan Saxe sees the exchange marking 50 to 60 biopharma IPOs for the year.

“December 15 is usually the last possible day that companies will price,” he said, as companies get ready for business talks at the annual JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in January.

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A fa­vorite in Alex­ion’s C-suite is leav­ing, and some mighty sur­prised an­a­lysts aren’t the least bit hap­py about it

Analysts hate to lose a biotech CFO they’ve come to trust and admire — especially if they’re being blindsided by a surprise exit.

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Oxitec biologist releases genetically modified mosquitoes in Piracicaba, Brazil in 2016 [credit: Getty Images]

In­trex­on unit push­es back against claims its GM mos­qui­toes are mak­ing dis­ease-friend­ly mu­tants

When the hysteria of Zika transmission sprang into the American zeitgeist a few years ago, UK-based Oxitec was already field-testing its male Aedes aegypti mosquito, crafted to possess a gene engineered to obliterate its progeny long before maturation.

But when a group of independent scientists evaluated the impact of the release of these genetically-modified mosquitoes in a trial conducted by Oxitec in Brazil between 2013 and 2015, they found that some of the offspring had managed to survive — prompting them to speculate what impact the survivors could have on disease transmission and/or insecticide resistance.

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Pur­due threat­ens to walk away from set­tle­ment, asks to pay em­ploy­ees mil­lions in bonus­es

There are two updates on the lawsuit against Purdue Pharma over its role in fueling the opioid epidemic, as the Sackler family threatens to walk away from their pledge to pay out $3 billion if a bankruptcy judge does not stop outstanding state lawsuits against them. At the same time, the company has asked permission to pay millions in bonuses to select employees.

Purdue filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy this week as part of its signed resolution to over 2,000 lawsuits. The deal would see the Sackler family that owns Purdue give $3 billion from their personal wealth and the company turned into a trust committed to curbing and reversing overdoses.

Aerial view of Genentech's campus in South San Francisco [Credit: Getty]

Genen­tech sub­mits a big plan to ex­pand its South San Fran­cis­co foot­print

The sign is still there, a quaint reminder of whitewashed concrete not 5 miles from Genentech’s sprawling, chrome-and-glass campus: South Francisco The Industrial City. 

The city keeps the old sign, first erected in 1923, as a tourist site and a kind of civic memento to the days it packed meat, milled lumber and burned enough steel to earn the moniker “Smokestack of the Peninsula.” But the real indication of where you are and how much has changed both in San Francisco and in the global economy since a couple researchers and investors rented out an empty warehouse 40 years ago comes in a far smaller blue sign, resembling a Rotary Club post, off the highway: South San Francisco, The Birthplace of Biotech.

While No­var­tis ban­ish­es Zol­gens­ma scan­dal scars — Bio­gen goes on a Spin­raza 'of­fen­sive'

While Novartis painstakingly works to mop up the stench of the data manipulation scandal associated with its expensive gene therapy for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) Zolgensma— rival Biogen is attempting to expand the use of its SMA therapy, Spinraza. 

The US drugmaker $BIIB secured US approval for Spinraza for use in the often fatal genetic disease in 2016. The approval covered a broad range of patients with infantile-onset (most likely to develop Type 1) SMA. 

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Eye­ing big ther­a­peu­tic push, Gink­go bags $290M to build a cell pro­gram­ming em­pire

Ginkgo Bioworks is on a roll. Days after publicizing a plan to nurture new startups via partnerships with accelerators Y Combinator and Petri, the Boston biotech says it has raised another $290 million for its cell programming platform to reach further and wider.

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UP­DAT­ED: Speak­er Nan­cy Pelosi to un­veil bill for fed­er­al­ly ne­go­ti­at­ed drug prices

After months of buzz from both sides of the aisle, Speaker Nancy Pelosi will today introduce her plan to allow the federal government to negotiate prices for 250 prescription drugs, setting up a showdown with a pharmaceutical industry working overtime to prevent it.

The need to limit drug prices is a rare point of agreement between President Trump and Democrats, although the president has yet to comment on the proposal and will likely face pressure to back a more conservative option or no bill at all. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley is reportedly lobbying his fellow party members on a more modest proposal he negotiated with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden in July.