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.

IDC: Life Sci­ences Firms Must Em­brace Dig­i­tal Trans­for­ma­tion Now

Pre-pandemic, the life sciences industry had settled into a pattern. The average drug took 12 years and $2.9 billion to bring to market, and it was an acceptable mode of operations, according to Nimita Limaye, Research Vice President for Life Sciences R&D Strategy and Technology at IDC.

COVID-19 changed that, and served as a proof-of-concept for how technology can truly help life sciences companies succeed and grow, Limaye said. She recently spoke about industry trends at Egnyte’s Life Sciences Summit 2022. You should watch the entire session, free and on-demand, but here’s a brief recap of why she’s urging life sciences companies to embrace digital transformation.

FDA ap­proves one of the prici­est new treat­ments of all time — blue­bird's gene ther­a­py for be­ta tha­lassemia

The FDA on Wednesday approved the first gene therapy for a chronic condition — bluebird bio’s new Zynteglo (beti-cel) as a potentially curative treatment for those with transfusion-dependent thalassemia.

The thumbs-up from the FDA follows a unanimous adcomm vote in June, with outside experts pointing to extraordinary efficacy, with 89% of subjects with TDT who received beti-cel having achieved transfusion independence.

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Joel Dudley, new partner at Innovation Endeavors (Bosch Health Campus)

For­mer Google CEO’s VC is mak­ing a big­ger push in­to the biotech world, hir­ing promi­nent Ther­a­nos skep­tic

Venture capital firm Innovation Endeavors has mainly had its focus on investments across the tech space, but it has been slowly turning its attention to the biotech world. Now, a new partner is coming into the fold showing that its interest in biotech is likely to grow further.

The Silicon Valley-based company, which is headed up by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, has brought on Joel Dudley as a partner. According to Dudley’s LinkedIn page, he is joining Innovation Endeavors after serving as the chief science officer of biotech startup Tempus Labs since 2020.

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James Sabry, Roche global head of pharma partnering

Roche, Genen­tech plunk down $60M up­front to part­ner with Chi­nese phar­ma on PRO­TAC-based prostate can­cer drug

Roche and Genentech are always on the hunt for deals, and on Thursday they found their newest partner.

The pair will team up with the Chinese pharma company Jemincare to push forward a new program for prostate cancer, the companies announced. Roche is ponying up $60 million upfront to get its hands on the candidate and promising up to $590 million in biobucks, plus royalties, down the line.

In return, Genentech will get a worldwide license to develop the program, known as JMKX002992, and bring it to market.

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Andrew Hopkins, Exscientia CEO

Ex­sci­en­tia ter­mi­nates Bay­er pact half a year ear­ly, col­lect­ing small por­tion of €240M promised

Bayer and Exscientia are winding down their three-year collaboration, leaving the big German pharma to take the AI-designed compounds born out of the pact further.

London-based Exscientia revealed in its Q2 update that the partners have “mutually agreed to end” their collaboration, which kicked off in early 2020, after recently achieving a drug discovery milestone. In an SEC filing, Exscientia said it terminated the pact on May 30, about six months early.

Atomwise CEO and co-founder Abraham Heifets (left) and co-founder Izhar Wallach

A cou­ple bil­lion for Ex­sci­en­tia was on­ly part of Sanofi's AI am­bi­tions, as the Big Phar­ma adds Atom­wise to the ta­ble

Sanofi made clear its AI ambitions were real at the beginning of this year when the Big Pharma took its drug discovery collaboration with Exscientia to the next level, inking a pact that could birth 15 drugs and deliver $5.3 billion to the UK partner.

Seven months later, the AI blueprint is far from over at the French Big Pharma, as another of the much-hyped drug discovery startups is coming to the table in a five-drug deal. Sanofi will pay Atomwise $20 million to kick off the hunt for up to five targets, which are aimed at leading to the creation of new small molecules. Another $1 billion is on the line — as are royalties — and the companies kept mum on the specific diseases or broader therapeutic areas of interest.

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Bayer's first DTC ad campaign for chronic kidney disease drug Kerendia spells out its benefits

Bay­er aims to sim­pli­fy the com­plex­i­ties of CKD with an ABC-themed ad cam­paign

Do you know the ABCs of CKD in T2D? Bayer’s first ad campaign for Kerendia tackles the complexity of chronic kidney disease with a play on the acronym (CKD) and its connection to type 2 diabetes (T2D).

Kerendia was approved last year as the first and only non-steroidal mineralocorticoid receptor antagonist to treat CKD in people with type 2 diabetes.

In the TV commercial launched this week, A is for awareness, B is for belief and C is for cardiovascular, explained in the ad as awareness of the connection between type 2 and kidney disease, belief that something can be done about it, and cardiovascular events that may be reduced with treatment.

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James Mock, incoming CFO at Moderna

Mod­er­na taps new CFO from PerkinElmer af­ter for­mer one-day CFO oust­ed

When Moderna hired a new CFO last year,  it didn’t expect to see him gone after only one day. Today the biotech named his — likely much more vetted — replacement.

The mRNA company put out word early Wednesday that after the untimely departure of then brand-new CFO Jorge Gomez, it has now found a replacement in James Mock, the soon-to-be former CFO at diagnostics and analytics company PerkinElmer.

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Etleva Kadilli, director of UNICEF’s supply division

GSK lands first-ever UNICEF con­tract for malar­ia vac­cine worth $170M

GSK has landed a new first from UNICEF the first-ever contract for malaria vaccines, worth up to $170 million for 18 million vaccine doses distributed over the next three years.

The vaccine, known as Mosquirix or RTS,S, won WHO’s backing last October after a controversial start, but UNICEF said these doses will potentially save thousands of lives every year.

“We hope this is just the beginning,” Etleva Kadilli, director of UNICEF’s supply division, said. “Continued innovation is needed to develop new and next-generation vaccines to increase available supply, and enable a healthier vaccine market. This is a giant step forward in our collective efforts to save children’s lives and reduce the burden of malaria as part of wider malaria prevention and control programmes.”