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.

Am­gen lays off about 300 work­ers, cit­ing 'in­dus­try head­wind­s'

Amgen has laid off about 300 employees, a company spokesperson confirmed to Endpoints News via email Sunday night.

Employees posted to LinkedIn in recent days about layoffs hitting Amgen last week. The Thousand Oaks, CA-based biopharma, which employs about 24,000 people, said the reduction “mainly” impacted US-based workers on its commercial team.

Drug developers of all sizes, including small upstarts and pharma giants, have let employees go in recent months as the biopharma market drags through a quarters-long winter doldrum.

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Late Fri­day ap­proval; Trio of biotechs wind down; Stem cell pi­o­neer finds new fron­tier; Biotech icon to re­tire; 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.

I hope your weekend is off to a nice start, wherever you are reading this email. As for me, I’m trying to catch the tail of the Lunar New Year festivities.

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Amit Etkin, Alto Neuroscience CEO (Alto via Vimeo)

Al­to Neu­ro­science bags $25M for four Phase II drugs

Another $25 million is flowing the way of a California biotech attempting to fix the “trial and error” system in neuroscience drug R&D.

Alto Neuroscience picked up the capital from Alpha Wave Ventures via an extension to its Series B, bringing total equity raised to $100 million since the startup’s 2019 founding. The biotech also recently signed up for a $35 million credit facility.

All that capital will help the biotech investigate four drugs through four Phase II readouts, Alto said Monday morning. That means enough money to keep the lights on into 2025, a year longer than projected under the original Series B close.

Boehringer In­gel­heim touts pre­ven­tion re­sults in rarest form of pso­ri­a­sis

Boehringer Ingelheim uncorked some positive results suggesting that Spevigo can help prevent flare-ups in patients with a severe form of psoriasis, months after the drug was approved to treat existing flares.

Spevigo, an IL-36R antibody also known as spesolimab, met its primary and a key secondary endpoint in the Phase IIb EFFISAYIL 2 trial in patients with generalized pustular psoriasis (GPP), Boehringer announced on Monday. While the company is keeping the hard numbers under wraps until later this year, it said in a news release that it anticipates sharing the results with regulators.

As­traZeneca, No­vo Nordisk and Sanofi score 340B-re­lat­ed ap­peals court win over HHS

AstraZeneca, Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi won an appeals court win on Monday, as the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit found that the companies cannot be forced to provide 340B-discounted drugs purchased by hospitals from an unlimited number of community and specialty pharmacies.

“Legal duties do not spring from silence,” the decision says as the court makes clear that the federal government’s interpretation of the “supposed requirement” that the 340B program compels drugmakers to supply their discounted drugs to an unlimited number of contract pharmacies is not correct, noting:

Ap­peals court toss­es J&J's con­tro­ver­sial 'Texas two-step' bank­rupt­cy case

A US appeals court has ruled against Johnson & Johnson’s use of bankruptcy to deal with mounting talc lawsuits, deciding that doing so would “create a legal blind spot.”

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a previous bankruptcy court decision on Monday, calling for the dismissal of a Chapter 11 filing by J&J’s subsidiary LTL Management.

Faced with more than 38,000 lawsuits alleging its talc-based products caused cancer, J&J spun its talc liabilities into a separate company called LTL Management back in October 2021 and filed for bankruptcy, a controversial move colloquially referred to as a “Texas two-step” bankruptcy. Claimants argued that the strategy is a misuse of the US bankruptcy code — and on Monday, a panel of judges agreed.

Chad Mirkin, Flashpoint co-founder

‘The field is at a flash­point’: New Chad Mirkin-found­ed biotech hopes to make more ef­fec­tive can­cer vac­cines

Following the success of the mRNA Covid vaccines, cancer vaccines are seeing renewed interest after years of middling results. But a group of researchers suggests that more attention needs to be paid not to what goes into those vaccines, but how the parts are put together.

In a recent paper published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, researchers led by Northwestern University’s Chad Mirkin describe how the placement of different antigens in a cancer vaccine impacts its efficacy. The paper builds on past work done by Mirkin’s lab that suggests the structure, or how the parts of a vaccine are arranged, impact a vaccine’s efficacy, not just its components.

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#JPM23: Reg­u­la­to­ry un­cer­tain­ty? What about M&A? Da­ta rule? Alessan­dro Masel­li and John Car­roll take out their crys­tal balls

Endpoints editor and founder John Carroll sat down the Catalent CEO Alessandro Maselli to talk about what’s ahead in 2023. Right or wrong, this covers all the big issues faced by biopharma. This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

John Carroll:

I think 2022 had to be one of the worst years ever for crystal balls. You went into 2022 thinking all sorts of nice things about what was ahead, not thinking about a European land war, maybe not thinking that the Federal Reserve was going to be jacking up interest rates as fast as they could to get ahead of inflation. Just a tremendous number of macroeconomic issues that were out there. The sudden and complete collapse of support on the markets in Nasdaq for biotech. A lot of darlings in the industry that had been out there for a while suddenly found themselves moving from a really hot market to a really cold market all of a sudden and had to make a lot of different changes in terms of strategizing.

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Tyler Golato, VitaDAO co-initiator

Pfiz­er-backed de­cen­tral­ized co­op­er­a­tive rais­es $4.1M to fund longevi­ty re­search

Months after Pfizer Ventures put a decentralized cooperative on the map by announcing a $500,000 infusion into its mission of funding human longevity research, the group — VitaDAO — is tying the bow around a $4.1 million fundraising round.

As its name implies, VitaDAO calls itself a DAO, or decentralized autonomous organization. Like many other such groups, it aims to run on a relatively flat, global structure using contracts on blockchains and crypto-tied tokens in hopes of proving a new way to fund big ideas and bridge the valley of death for very early-stage research on anti-aging.