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 DCT-OS: A Tech­nol­o­gy-first Op­er­at­ing Sys­tem - En­abling Clin­i­cal Tri­als

As technology-enabled clinical research becomes the new normal, an integrated decentralized clinical trial operating system can ensure quality, deliver consistency and improve the patient experience.

The increasing availability of COVID-19 vaccines has many of us looking forward to a time when everyday things return to a state of normal. Schools and teachers are returning to classrooms, offices and small businesses are reopening, and there’s a palpable sense of optimism that the often-awkward adjustments we’ve all made personally and professionally in the last year are behind us, never to return. In the world of clinical research, however, some pandemic-necessitated adjustments are proving to be more than emergency stopgap measures to ensure trial continuity — and numerous decentralized clinical trial (DCT) tools and methodologies employed within the last year are likely here to stay as part of biopharma’s new normal.

As­traZeneca caps PD-L1/CT­LA-4/chemo com­bo come­back with OS win. Is treme­li­mum­ab fi­nal­ly ready for ap­proval?

AstraZeneca’s closely-watched POSEIDON study continues to be the rare bright spot in its push for an in-house PD-L1/CTLA-4 combo.

Combining Imfinzi and tremelimumab with physicians’ choice of chemotherapy helped patients with stage IV non-small cell lung cancer live longer, the company reported — marking the first time the still-experimental tremelimumab has demonstrated an OS benefit.

For AstraZeneca and CEO Pascal Soriot, the positive readout — which is devoid of numbers — offers much-needed validation for the big bet they made on Imfinzi plus tremelimumab, after the PD-L1/CTLA-4 regimen failed multiple trials in head and neck cancer as well as lung cancer.

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Ron DePinho (file photo)

A 'fly­over' biotech launch­es in Texas with four Ron De­Pin­ho-found­ed com­pa­nies un­der its belt

In his 13 years at Genzyme, Michael Wyzga noticed something about East Coast drugmakers. Execs would often jet from Boston or New York to San Francisco to find more assets, and completely miss the work being done in flyover states, like Texas or Wisconsin.

“If it doesn’t come out of MGH or MIT or Harvard, probably not that interesting,” he said of the mindset.

Now, he and some well-known industry players are looking to change that, and they’ve reeled in just over $38 million to do it.

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Onno van de Stolpe, Galapagos CEO (Thierry Roge/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images)

Gala­pa­gos chops in­to their pipeline, drop­ping core fields and re­or­ga­niz­ing R&D as the BD team hunts for some­thing 'trans­for­ma­tive'

Just 5 months after Gilead gutted its rich partnership with Galapagos following a bitter setback at the FDA, the Belgian biotech is hunkering down and chopping the pipeline in an effort to conserve cash while their BD team pursues a mission to find a “transformative” deal for the company.

The filgotinib disaster didn’t warrant a mention as Galapagos laid out its Darwinian restructuring plans. Forced to make choices, the company is ditching its IPF molecule ’1205, while moving ahead with a Phase II IPF study for its chitinase inhibitor ’4617.

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Stéphane Bancel, Getty

Mod­er­na CEO brush­es off US sup­port for IP waiv­er, eyes more than $19B in Covid-19 vac­cine sales in 2021

Moderna is definitively more concerned with keeping pace with Pfizer in the race to vaccinate the world against Covid-19 than it is with Wednesday’s decision from the Biden administration to back an intellectual property waiver that aims to increase vaccine supplies worldwide.

In its first quarter earnings call on Thursday, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel shrugged off any suggestion that the newly US-backed intellectual property waiver would impact his company’s vaccine or bottom line. Still, the company’s stock price fell by about 9% in early morning trading.

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Brent Saunders (Richard Drew, AP Images)

OcuWho? Star deal­mak­er turned aes­thet­ics czar Brent Saun­ders flips back in­to biotech. But who’s he team­ing up with now?

Brent Saunders went on a tear of headline-blazing deals building Allergan, merging and rearranging a variety of big companies into one before an M&A pact with Pfizer blew up and sent him on a bout of biotech drug deals. That didn’t work so well, so under pressure, he got his buyout at AbbVie — which needed a big franchise like Botox. And it was no big surprise to see him riding the SPAC wave into a recent $1 billion-plus deal that left him in the executive chairman’s seat at an aesthetics outfit — now redubbed The Beauty Health Company — holding a big chunk of the equity.

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'Chang­ing the whole game of drug dis­cov­ery': Leg­endary R&D vet Roger Perl­mut­ter leaps back in­to work as a biotech CEO

Roger Perlmutter needs no introduction to anyone remotely involved in biopharma. As the R&D chief first at Amgen and then Merck, he’s built a stellar reputation and a prolific career steering new drugs toward the market for everything from cancer to infectious diseases.

But for years, he’s also held a less known title: science partner at The Column Group, where he’s regularly consulted about the various ideas the VCs had for new startups.

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Ad­comm splits slight­ly in fa­vor of FDA ap­prov­ing Chemo­Cen­tryx’s rare dis­ease drug

The FDA’s Arthritis Advisory Committee on Thursday voted 10 for and 8 against the approval of ChemoCentryx’s $CCXI investigational drug avacopan as a treatment for adults with a rare and serious disease known as anti-neutrophil cytoplasmic autoantibody (ANCA)-vasculitis.

The vote on whether the FDA should approve the drug was preceded by a split vote of 9 to 9 on whether the efficacy data support approval, and 10 to 8 that the safety profile of avacopan is adequate enough to support approval.

Drug pric­ing watch­dog joins the cho­rus of crit­ics on Bio­gen's ad­u­canum­ab: What about charg­ing $2,560 per year?

As if Biogen’s aducanumab isn’t controversial enough, the researchers at drug pricing watchdog ICER have drawn up the contours of a new debate: If the therapy does get approved for Alzheimer’s by June, what price should it command?

Their answer: At most $8,290 per year — and perhaps as little as $2,560.

Even at the top of the range, the proposed price is a fraction of the $50,000 that Wall Street has reportedly come to expect (although RBC analyst Brian Abrahams puts the consensus figure at $11.5K). With critics, including experts on the FDA’s advisory committee, making their fierce opposition to aducanumab’s approval loud and clear, the pricing pressure adds one extra wrinkle Biogen CEO Michel Vounatsos doesn’t need as he orders full-steam preparation for a launch.