Jen Nwankwo, 1910 Genetics CEO

Ex­clu­sive: Mi­crosoft, Sam Alt­man back a new AI biotech up­start

Most ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence biotechs start with a com­put­er sci­en­tist or two and an al­go­rithm. Jen Nwankwo start­ed from the oth­er side of the spec­trum.

She had just got­ten her PhD from Tufts in 2016, a dyed-in-the-wool phar­ma­col­o­gist who had re­ceived an HH­MI fel­low­ship and worked on sick­le cell drug dis­cov­ery at Boston Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal, and was work­ing at Bain Cap­i­tal when she start­ed read­ing up on ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. She’d pour over every news ar­ti­cle she saw on self-dri­ving cars or im­age recog­ni­tion, won­der­ing with each word how she could ap­ply the same tech­nol­o­gy to the prob­lems that plagued her as a drug de­vel­op­er.

“I don’t come from the tech­nol­o­gy world, I am not my­self an AI per­son,” Nwankwo told End­points News. “I’m what you call an AI en­thu­si­ast.”

Sam Alt­man

The lack of tech ex­pe­ri­ence, though, hasn’t cost her with tech in­vestors. Af­ter build­ing a plat­form and launch­ing a com­pa­ny, 1910 Ge­net­ics, around those ear­ly mus­ings, she has con­vinced Mi­crosoft’s VC firm M12 and the deep tech VC Play­ground Glob­al to back a $22 mil­lion Se­ries A, with the goal of turn­ing the plat­form she and a col­league built in­to a long list of drug de­vel­op­ment pro­grams.

Though mod­est by biotech stan­dards, the in­vest­ment rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant step for a pair of promi­nent Sil­i­con Val­ley firms that have yet to wade deeply in­to the life sci­ences. 1910 Ge­net­ics al­so won a $4.1 mil­lion seed round led by a per­son­al in­vest­ment from Y Com­bi­na­tor and Ope­nAI’s Sam Alt­man.

Jo­ry Bell

“We share the be­lief that life sci­ences is at an in­flec­tion point and that it’s a lit­tle bit be­hind on its us­es of (ma­chine learn­ing) and au­toma­tion,” Play­ground Glob­al gen­er­al part­ner Jo­ry Bell told End­points.

Nwankwo pre­sent­ed a con­vinc­ing case to lead the push to catch the field up, he said: “Jen is an ex­treme­ly com­pelling founder. She had ex­pe­ri­ence in shep­herd­ing drugs to mar­ket, busi­ness de­vel­op­ment in that con­text, and had put to­geth­er an in­cred­i­ble team on the com­pu­ta­tion­al side.”

1910’s pitch is fa­mil­iar to any­one who’s been fol­low­ing the field for the last decade: New ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence tools can short­en some of the most dif­fi­cult and la­bor-in­ten­sive process­es in drug de­vel­op­ment, in­clud­ing find­ing a good mol­e­cule to hit your tar­get and then tweak­ing that mol­e­cule in po­ten­tial­ly hun­dreds or thou­sands of dif­fer­ent ways too.

They dif­fer, though, in a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent ways. First, with­out delv­ing in­to specifics, Nwankwo said the com­pa­ny’s ap­proach for screen­ing mol­e­cules doesn’t use the ma­chine learn­ing tool that has dri­ven the AI rev­o­lu­tion over the last decade and sits at the heart of AI drug dis­cov­ery com­pa­nies such as Atom­wise and Ex­sci­en­tia.

Sec­ond, in­stead of help­ing with one ma­jor step of the process, Nwankwo and lead AI sci­en­tist Bran­don Moore have de­vel­oped a sys­tem of se­quen­tial and in­ter­lock­ing al­go­rithms for dif­fer­ent parts of the drug dis­cov­ery process. SUEDE screens through 14 bil­lion mol­e­cules that can hit a tar­get. BAGEL us­es neur­al net­works to gen­er­ate tweaks that make the mol­e­cule more drug-like. And CAN­DID us­es neur­al net­works to pre­dict how it would per­form on mul­ti­ple met­rics, such as sol­u­bil­i­ty.

Like a grow­ing num­ber of AI com­pa­nies, they al­so have a wet lab to quick­ly test out their best can­di­dates. Nwankwo said they are al­so work­ing on a plat­form, called ROS­ALYND, to ap­ply AI tech­niques to pro­tein-based drugs. They’re look­ing to find bet­ter ways of pre­dict­ing a pro­tein’s func­tion from its se­quence.

“Can AI help us there?” she said. “And if we’re go­ing to fail, can we fail faster?”

Nei­ther Nwankwo nor Play­ground’s Bell were shy about the com­pa­ny’s am­bi­tion. Al­though the fi­nanc­ing is small and the com­pa­ny is on­ly at 14 full-time em­ploy­ees, they’ll look to scale to 30 em­ploy­ees quick­ly. They al­ready have pro­grams in oph­thal­mol­o­gy, in­fec­tious dis­ease, neu­rol­o­gy, im­munol­o­gy and ag­ing.

Nwankwo said they have un­named part­ner­ships with large phar­ma com­pa­nies. Even­tu­al­ly, they’ll have an in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal pipeline, sim­i­lar to a hand­ful of oth­er ma­jor com­pu­ta­tion­al com­pa­nies.

“If you look at what Bruce Booth and the team did with Nim­bus, it’s sort of sim­i­lar from a busi­ness mod­el per­spec­tive,” Nwankwo said. “We’re now com­ing to a point where we want to pick which ar­eas we ac­tu­al­ly want to stick our neck out on and take those to IND. And you can ex­pect us to come out this year and say Area A, Area B is where 1910 will fo­cus.”

Cor­rec­tion: The ar­ti­cle has been up­dat­ed to clar­i­fy that 1910’s seed round was led by a per­son­al in­vest­ment from Sam Alt­man, not his firm, Ope­nAI. 

The Big Phar­ma dis­card pile; Lay­offs all around while some biotechs bid farewell; New Roche CEO as­sem­bles top team; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

With earnings seasons in full swing, we’ve listened in on all the calls so you don’t have to. But news is popping up from all corners, so make sure you check out our other updates, too.

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Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) (Francis Chung/E&E News/Politico via AP Images)

In­fla­tion re­bates in­com­ing: Wyden calls on CMS to move quick­ly as No­var­tis CEO pledges re­ver­sal

Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) this week sent a letter to the head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services seeking an update on how and when new inflation-linked rebates will take effect for drugs that see major price spikes.

The newly signed Inflation Reduction Act requires manufacturers to pay a rebate to Medicare when they increase drug prices faster than the rate of inflation.

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Trodelvy notch­es a win in most com­mon form of breast can­cer

Following a promise last year to go “big and fast in breast cancer,” Gilead has secured a win for Trodelvy in the most common form.

The drug was approved to treat HR-positive, HER2-negative breast cancer patients who’ve already received endocrine-based therapy and at least two other systemic therapies for metastatic cancer, Gilead announced on Friday.

Trodelvy won its first indication in metastatic triple-negative breast cancer back in 2020, and has since added urothelial cancer to the list. HR-positive HER2-negative breast cancer accounts for roughly 70% of new breast cancer cases worldwide per year, according to senior VP of oncology clinical development Bill Grossman, and many patients develop resistance to endocrine-based therapies or worsen on chemotherapy.

Raymond Stevens, Structure Therapeutics CEO

Be­hind Fri­day's $161M IPO: A star sci­en­tist, GPCR drug dis­cov­ery and a plan to chal­lenge phar­ma in di­a­betes

What does it take to pull off a $161 million biotech IPO these days?

In Structure Therapeutics’ case, it means having a star scientist co-founder paired with the computational drug discovery company Schrödinger, $198 million in private funding from blue-chip investors, almost six years of research work on G protein-coupled receptors and a slate of oral, small-molecule drugs, with an eye on the huge and growing diabetes and weight-loss market.

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Af­ter 13 years, Ramy Mah­moud steps in­to CEO seat at Opti­nose; Ru­pert Vessey set to ex­it Bris­tol My­ers in Ju­ly

After 13 years as president and COO at Optinose, Ramy Mahmoud has stepped into a new role as its CEO. He is taking the place of Peter Miller, who stepped down earlier this week, though Miller is still staying with the company as a consultant.

In 2010, the two business partners joined Optinose to take it in a new direction, transforming it from a delivery platform to product company. They previously worked together at Johnson & Johnson, when Miller was president at Janssen and Mahmoud headed medical affairs. Miller said after he learned about Optinose, “I did what I always do, which is find people smarter than me to talk with about the idea. And the first person I called was Ramy … and I said, ‘Hey, Ramy, what do you think of this technology?’”

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Te­va drops out of in­dus­try trade group PhRMA

Following in AbbVie’s footsteps, Teva confirmed on Friday that it’s dropping out of the industry trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).

Teva didn’t give a reason for its decision to leave, saying only in a statement to Endpoints News that it annually reviews “effectiveness and value of engagements, consultants and memberships to ensure our investments are properly seated.”

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Sanofi CFO Jean-Baptiste de Chatillon (L) and CEO Paul Hudson (Romuald Meigneux/Sipa via AP Images)

Sanofi sees downtick in flu sales as it preps for launch of RSV an­ti­body

Sanofi expects its RSV antibody jointly developed with AstraZeneca will be available next season, executive VP of vaccines Thomas Triomphe announced on the company’s quarterly call.

Beyfortus, also known as nirsevimab, was approved in the EU back in November and is currently under FDA review with an expected decision coming in the third quarter of this year. The news comes as the FDA plans to hold advisory committee meetings over the next couple months to review RSV vaccines from Pfizer and GSK.

Christophe Weber, Takeda CEO (Photographer: Shoko Takayasu/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Take­da fo­cus­es on ‘di­verse’ pipeline prospects on heels of two ac­qui­si­tions

After a whopping $4 billion asset buy from Nimbus Therapeutics, along with a $400 million deal with Hutchmed for a colorectal cancer drug, Takeda executives touted pipeline optimism on its latest earnings call this week.

That’s because the TYK2 inhibitor for psoriasis Takeda is getting from Nimbus, along with the Hutchmed fruquintinib commercialization outside of China, are just two of what it reports are 10 late-stage development programs of promising candidates.

Regeneron CSO George Yancopoulos (L) and CEO Len Schleifer at a groundbreaking for its new Tarrytown, NY facility, June 2022 (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In show­down with Roche, Re­gen­eron gears up for po­ten­tial Eylea ex­pan­sion amid Covid de­cline

Regeneron faced a substantial slump in overall revenue last year, but the focus still remains on some of its biggest blockbusters.

The pharma with several high-profile partnerships — Sanofi and Bayer among them — said Friday that Q4 revenue was down 31% for the quarter, and down 24% for the entire year. However, that won’t stop blockbuster expansion plans.

One of those is Eylea, the Bayer-partnered eye disease drug that has been in major competition with Roche’s Vabysmo. While Eylea is currently only approved in a 2 mg dose, the company recently filed for approval to give a 8 mg dose, in hopes of making a longer-lasting treatment.