David Roblin (Relation)

Ex­clu­sive: Pfiz­er vet grabs $25M seed round to 'in­te­grate' ma­chine learn­ing, ge­nomics tech in drug R&D

Hav­ing been in­volved in a num­ber of at­tri­tion task force ef­forts dur­ing his tenure as Eu­ro­pean R&D chief at Pfiz­er, David Rob­lin tells me there’s a quote that res­onates with him, ut­tered 20 years ago by South African bi­ol­o­gist Syd­ney Bren­ner when he ac­cept­ed a No­bel Prize.

“We are drown­ing in a sea of da­ta but thirsty for knowl­edge,” is how Rob­lin re­mem­bers it.

But the way those da­ta have been used to date — by drug dis­cov­ery sci­en­tists try­ing to val­i­date their ideas — hasn’t re­al­ly im­proved the rate at which pre­clin­i­cal com­pounds be­come mar­ket­ed drugs, he reck­ons. The po­ten­tial he sees for ma­chine learn­ing and new tech­nolo­gies like sin­gle-cell tran­scrip­tomics to change that is the rea­son why, af­ter eight years as chief of sci­en­tif­ic trans­la­tion at Lon­don’s Fran­cis Crick In­sti­tute, he’s mov­ing down the road to Re­la­tion Ther­a­peu­tics, which has just closed a $25 mil­lion seed round.

“We’re not go­ing to sit here and tell you that ma­chine learn­ing is the sin­gle an­swer and every­thing will be de­signed in the ma­chine and that ma­chine will send a file to the FDA,” he said. “The key ques­tion for a com­pa­ny like ours is, where do you best de­ploy ma­chine learn­ing that af­fords max­i­mum im­pact? Where do you use tran­scrip­tomics? And where do you see the link­age?”

Rob­lin, the CEO, is joined in the C-suite by Lind­say Ed­wards, CTO and pres­i­dent of plat­form. The for­mer head of AI for res­pi­ra­to­ry and im­munol­o­gy at As­traZeneca, Ed­wards al­so led one of GSK’s first da­ta sci­ence groups be­fore that.

Com­ing out of stealth at a time the idea of de­ploy­ing AI/ML in drug R&D has al­ready gone through a cou­ple cy­cles of hype and bust, Re­la­tion’s ap­proach will be ground­ed in ac­tive learn­ing, where ma­chine learn­ing sys­tems will go through the da­ta gen­er­at­ed in its wet and in sil­i­co labs, and then tell the sci­en­tists what new ex­per­i­ments to run for it to come up with new in­sight.

Specif­i­cal­ly, Ed­wards not­ed, the com­pa­ny will be us­ing a frame­work called ac­tive-graph ma­chine learn­ing, or Meta­graph, us­ing the con­cept of graphs as a back­bone so as to map out the com­plex re­la­tion­ships be­tween genes, pro­teins and drugs.

“What Lind­say is do­ing, large­ly, is tak­ing al­go­rithms, ideas that have been de­ployed else­where, par­tic­u­lar­ly in con­sumer so­cial net­work­ing, and turn­ing them to the pur­pose of gene vari­ant bi­ol­o­gy, iden­ti­fi­ca­tion,” Rob­lin said, adding, “So in that sense, I’m quite hap­py to say like, a lot of that stuff is not ab­solute­ly break­through. What we’re go­ing to be do­ing is cre­at­ing a plat­form of in­te­gra­tion which is sec­ond to none, es­sen­tial­ly.”

Based in the Knowl­edge Quar­ter in Lon­don — sur­round­ed by UCL, King’s and Fran­cis Crick as well as sev­er­al hos­pi­tals — Re­la­tion is look­ing to crunch ge­nom­ic da­ta on the in­di­vid­ual cell lev­el with sam­ples pro­vid­ed by neigh­bor­ing biobanks.

As its first big project, the team is de­vel­op­ing a cell at­las of the bone, an area where sig­nif­i­cant gaps in bi­o­log­i­cal un­der­stand­ing still ex­ist, ac­cord­ing to Rob­lin. It is im­por­tant, in his words, to ful­ly grasp the trans­la­tion­al route and en­sure the cell mod­els used in Re­la­tion’s labs are “as close to re­ca­pit­u­la­tion of dis­ease as pos­si­ble.”

“Mak­ing sure you work on the right things is a re­al­ly crit­i­cal prob­lem,” Ed­wards said.

Re­la­tion will al­so get help from Nvidia, which is giv­ing it ac­cess to the NVIDIA Cam­bridge-1 GPU su­per­com­put­er, which helps opens up new pos­si­bil­i­ties for look­ing at large stretch­es of DNA.

“Every­body runs in­to a com­pute lim­i­ta­tion, and that ba­si­cal­ly sets the width of the amount of DNA that you can look at in a sin­gle go,” he said. “So ac­cess to Cam­bridge lab, we ex­pect will give us some kind of break­through re­cep­tive fields with our mod­els.”

With “re­al­ly good R&D peo­ple” at the cen­ter of it all, Rob­lin said Re­la­tion will aim to grow from 15 to 40 staffers with the new cash. The com­pa­ny has al­so put to­geth­er a hefty sci­en­tif­ic ad­vi­so­ry board, in­clud­ing Michael Bron­stein (Ox­ford pro­fes­sor and head of graph AI at Twit­ter), as well as Alex Shalek and Car­o­line Uh­ler of the Broad In­sti­tute.

DCVC and Mag­net­ic Ven­tures co-led the fi­nanc­ing, with par­tic­i­pa­tion from Khosla Ven­tures, OMERS Ven­tures, and first­minute Cap­i­tal, plus a num­ber of in­di­vid­ual in­vestors.

Pi­o­neer­ing Click Chem­istry in Hu­mans

Reimagining cancer treatments

Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for nearly 10 million deaths in 2020, which is nearly one in six deaths. Recently, we have seen incredible advances in novel cancer therapies such as immune checkpoint inhibitors, cell therapies, and antibody-drug conjugates that have revamped cancer care and improved survival rates for patients.

Despite this significant progress in therapeutic targeting, why are we still seeing such a high mortality rate? The reason is that promising therapies are often limited by their therapeutic index, which is a measure of the effective dose of a drug, relative to its safety. If we could broaden the therapeutic indices of currently available medicines, it would revolutionize cancer treatments. We are still on the quest to find the ultimate cancer medicine – highly effective in several cancer types, safe, and precisely targeted to the tumor site.

Joshua Cohen (L) and Justin Klee, Amylyx co-CEOs

BREAK­ING: Af­ter long and wind­ing road, FDA ap­proves Amy­lyx's ALS drug in vic­to­ry for pa­tients and ad­vo­ca­cy groups

For just the third time in its 116-year history, the FDA has approved a new treatment for Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS.

US regulators gave the thumbs-up to the drug, known as Relyvrio, in a massive win for patients and their families. The approval, given to Boston-area biotech Amylyx Pharmaceuticals, comes after two years of long and contentious debates over the drug’s effectiveness between advocacy groups and FDA scientists, following the readout of a mid-stage clinical trial in September 2020.

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Ivan Cheung, Eisai US chairman and CEO

Bio­gen, Ei­sai re­fresh amy­loid hy­poth­e­sis with PhI­II show­ing Alzheimer's med slows cog­ni­tive de­cline

In the first look at Phase III data for lecanemab, Eisai and Biogen’s follow-up Alzheimer’s drug to the embattled Aduhelm launch, results show the drug passed with flying colors on a test looking at memory, problem solving and other dementia metrics.

One of the most-watched Alzheimer’s therapies in the clinic, lecanemab met the study’s primary goal on the CDR-SB — Clinical Dementia Rating-Sum of Boxes — giving the biotech the confidence to ask for full approval in the US, EU and Japan by next March 31. The experimental drug reduced clinical decline on the scale by 27% compared to placebo at 18 months, the companies said Tuesday night Eastern time and Wednesday morning in Japan.

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Nooman Haque, head of life sciences and healthcare at Silicon Valley Bank, and John Carroll

I’m head­ed to Lon­don soon for #EU­BIO22. Care to join me?

It was great getting back to a live ESMO conference/webinar in Paris followed by a live pop-up event for the Endpoints 11 in Boston. We’re staying on the road in October with our return for a live/streaming EUBIO22 in London.

Silicon Valley Bank’s Nooman Haque and I are once again jumping back into the thick of it with a slate of virtual and live events on October 12. I’ll get the ball rolling with a virtual fireside chat with Novo Nordisk R&D chief Marcus Schindler, covering their pipeline plans and BD work.

Some­one old, some­one new: Mod­er­na pro­motes CTO, raids No­var­tis for re­place­ment amid pipeline push

Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel made clear on the last quarterly call that “now is not the time to slow down.” On Thursday, he made a bit more room in the cockpit.

The company unveiled a new executive role on Thursday, promoting former chief technical operations and quality officer Juan Andres to president of strategic partnerships and enterprise expansion, and poaching a former Novartis exec to take his place.

Gilead names 'k­ing­pin­s' in coun­ter­feit HIV med law­suit

Gilead is mounting its counterfeit drug lawsuit, naming two “kingpins” and a complex network of conspirators who allegedly sold imitation bottles of its HIV meds, some of which ended up in US pharmacies.

The pharma giant on Wednesday provided an update on what it called a “large-scale, sophisticated counterfeiting conspiracy,” accusing two new defendants of “leading and orchestrating” a scheme to sell hundreds of millions of dollars in illegitimate drugs posing as meds such as Biktarvy and Descovy.

Vlad Coric, Biohaven CEO (Photo Credit: Andrew Venditti)

As Amy­lyx de­ci­sion waits in the wings, Bio­haven’s ALS drug sinks (again) in plat­form tri­al

The FDA’s decision on Amylyx’s ALS drug is set to come out sometime Thursday. In a space with few drugs, any approval would be a major landmark.

But elsewhere in the ALS field, things are a bit more tepid.

Thursday morning, Biohaven announced that its drug verdiperstat failed its arm of an ALS platform trial led by Massachusetts General Hospital. According to a press release, the drug did not meet its primary endpoint — improvement on an ALS functional status test — or any key secondary endpoints at 24 weeks. The trial had enrolled 167 patients, giving them either verdiperstat or placebo twice a day.

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Tar­sus looks to raise aware­ness of eye­lid mite dis­ease in cam­paign aimed at eye­care spe­cial­ists

Eyelid mite disease may be “gross” but it’s also fairly common, affecting about 25 million people in the US.

Called demodex blepharitis, it’s a well-known condition among eyecare professionals, but they often don’t always realize how common it is. Tarsus Pharmaceuticals wants to change that with a new awareness campaign called “Look at the Lids.”

The campaign and website debut Thursday — just three weeks after Tarsus filed for FDA approval for a drug that treats the disease.

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Marcelo Bigal, Ventus Therapeutics CEO

No­vo Nordisk joins No­var­tis, Roche in NL­RP3 are­na, bet­ting $70M cash on NASH, car­diometa­bol­ic us­es

As a drug target, the NLRP3 inflammasome has drawn serious interest from Big Pharma, inspiring a series of M&A deals from Novartis and Roche on top of venture investments by others. Now Novo Nordisk is jumping on the bandwagon — and the Danish pharma giant is taking the target where it knows best.

Novo Nordisk is getting its NLRP3 inhibitors from Ventus Therapeutics, a Versant-backed startup that set out to make some of the best NLRP3 drugs out there by incorporating new insights into the structure of the target complex.

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