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. 

Biotech and Big Phar­ma: A blue­print for a suc­cess­ful part­ner­ship

Strategic partnerships have long been an important contributor to how drugs are discovered and developed. For decades, big pharma companies have been forming alliances with biotech innovators to increase R&D productivity, expand geographical reach and better manage late-stage commercialization costs.

Noël Brown, Managing Director and Head of Biotechnology Investment Banking, and Greg Wiederrecht, Ph.D., Managing Director in the Global Healthcare Investment Banking Group at RBC Capital Markets, are no strangers to the importance of these tie-ups. Noël has over 20 years of investment banking experience in the industry. Before moving to the banking world in 2015, Greg was the Vice President and Head of External Scientific Affairs (ESA) at Merck, where he was responsible for the scientific assessment of strategic partnership opportunities worldwide.

No­var­tis' sec­ond at­tempt to repli­cate a stun­ning can­cer re­sult falls flat

Novartis’ hopes of turning one of the most surprising trial data points of the last decade into a lung cancer drug has taken another setback.

The Swiss pharma announced Monday that its IL-1 inhibitor canakinumab did not significantly extend the lives or slow the disease progression of patients with previously untreated locally advanced or metastatic non-small cell lung cancer when compared to standard of-care alone.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 120,600+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Robert Califf (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP Images, File)

As buzz on Califf FDA nom heats up, in­dus­try and agency in­sid­ers of­fer a strong nod for the ‘per­fect’ choice

For once in this long, dramatic road to finding a new FDA commissioner, there’s been some continuity. Both CNN and Politico reported this weekend that Rob Califf met with President Biden to discuss the permanent commish role, following earlier news broken by the Washington Post that all signs point to Califf.

Although there may be a few Democrats who continue to grandstand about the dangers of COI (Califf has worked for Verily, sits on the board of Centessa Pharmaceuticals, and has other ties to industry research), with the pandemic ongoing and the need for some kind of continuity at FDA mounting, Califf is likely to meet the same fate as when he first won Senate confirmation in 2016, by a vote of 89-4 — Bernie Sanders and 6 others didn’t vote.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 120,600+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot (Raphael Lafargue/Abaca/Sipa USA)

A com­bo of As­traZeneca's Imfinzi and chemo wins where oth­ers have failed in piv­otal bil­iary tract test

Looking to run with the big dogs in the PD-(L)1 class, AstraZeneca’s Imfinzi has a tall hill to climb to compete in an increasingly bustling market. An aggressive combo strategy for the drug has paid off so far, and now AstraZeneca is adding another notch to its belt.

A combo of Imfinzi (durvalumab) and chemotherapy significantly extended the lives of first-line patients with advanced biliary tract cancer over chemo alone, according to topline results from the Phase III TOPAZ-1 study revealed Monday.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 120,600+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Sean Ianchulev, Eyenovia CEO and CMO

Re­cent court de­ci­sion push­es FDA to re­ject and re­clas­si­fy drug-de­vice com­bo, crush­ing shares

Back in April, the FDA lost a crucial court case in which its broad discretion of regulating medical products that might satisfy the legal definitions of either “drug” and/or “medical device” was sharply curtailed.

In addition to the appeals court ruling that Genus Medical Technologies’ contrast agent barium sulfate (aka Vanilla SilQ) should not be considered a drug, as the FDA had initially ruled, but as a medical device, the agency also was forced to spell out which drugs would transition to devices as a result of the ruling.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 120,600+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Peter Greenleaf, Aurinia CEO

Af­ter pass­ing on Ac­celeron, Bris­tol My­ers eyes bolt-on ac­qui­si­tion of au­toim­mune spe­cial­ist — re­port

Bristol Myers Squibb is looking to beef up its autoimmune portfolio by scooping up Aurinia Pharmaceuticals, Bloomberg reported.

The recent overtures to Aurinia, relayed by anonymous insiders, came just as Bristol Myers turned down buyout talks with partners at Acceleron — which Merck ultimately struck a deal to acquire for $11.5 billion. Bristol Myers has reportedly decided to cash out on its minority stake, likely bagging $1.3 billion in the process, while keeping the royalty deals on two of Acceleron’s blood disorder drugs.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 120,600+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

So — that pig-to-hu­man trans­plant; Po­ten­tial di­a­betes cure reach­es pa­tient; Ac­cused MIT sci­en­tist lash­es back; 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.

We’re incredibly excited to welcome Beth Bulik, seasoned pharma marketing reporter, to the team. You can find much of her work in our new Marketing channel — and in her weekly newsletter, Endpoints PharmaRx, which will launch in early November. Add it to your subscriptions here.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 120,600+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

NYU surgeon transplants an engineered pig kidney into the outside of a brain-dead patient (Joe Carrotta/NYU Langone Health)

No, sci­en­tists are not any clos­er to pig-to-hu­man trans­plants than they were last week

Steve Holtzman was awoken by a 1 a.m. call from a doctor at Duke University asking if he could put some pigs on a plane and fly them from Ohio to North Carolina that day. A motorcyclist had gotten into a horrific crash, the doctor explained. He believed the pigs’ livers, sutured onto the patient’s skin like an external filter, might be able to tide the young man over until a donor liver became available.

UP­DAT­ED: Agenus calls out FDA for play­ing fa­vorites with Mer­ck, pulls cer­vi­cal can­cer BLA at agen­cy's re­quest

While criticizing the FDA for what may be some favoritism towards Merck, Agenus on Friday officially pulled its accelerated BLA for its anti-PD-1 inhibitor balstilimab as a potential second-line treatment for cervical cancer because of the recent full approval for Merck’s Keytruda in the same indication.

The company said the BLA, which was due for an FDA decision by Dec. 16, was withdrawn “when the window for accelerated approval of balstilimab closed,” thanks to the conversion of Keytruda’s accelerated approval to a full approval four months prior to its PDUFA date.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 120,600+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.