BenchSci founders, clockwise from top left: Liran Belenzon, Elvis Wianda, David Chen and Tom Leung

F-Prime backs a niche AI soft­ware start­up hunt­ing lofty goals in $22M Se­ries B

For many of the AI com­pa­nies sprout­ing on the bio­phar­ma field, val­i­da­tion — of­ten mean­ing con­fir­ma­tion of whether the tar­gets and drugs they iden­ti­fied or gen­er­at­ed would ac­tu­al­ly work — won’t come in years, if at all. But for Bench­Sci, the drug hunt­ing field is their home turf.

To be sure, the Toron­to-based start­up is do­ing some­thing very dif­fer­ent from the rest of the pack. Rather than stak­ing claims about the re­sults of drug dis­cov­ery, it’s out to change the process by hun­ker­ing down on a spe­cif­ic prob­lem: help­ing sci­en­tists se­lect the right reagents to con­duct their pre­clin­i­cal ex­per­i­ments.

Hav­ing start­ed out with an an­ti­body se­lec­tion ser­vice 18 months ago, Bench­Sci is now ready to roll out a broad­er reagent se­lec­tion plat­form and ex­pand the clien­tele from aca­d­e­m­ic in­sti­tu­tions and Big Phar­ma to biotechs — thanks to a $22 mil­lion cash in­jec­tion.

In con­trast with the clin­i­cal or com­mer­cial realm, Bench­Sci found that its chal­lenge wasn’t to com­pete with ri­val ven­dors but to con­vince in­vestors that there’s a mar­ket, CEO Li­ran Be­len­zon told End­points News.

“There is no soft­ware com­pa­ny in pre­clin­i­cal,” he said, leav­ing sci­en­tists to work on soft­ware with in­ter­faces that “look like they’re from the 1990s.”

But the ex­pe­ri­ence of his co-founder and CSO Tom Le­ung, who saw first hand how an in­ap­pro­pri­ate an­ti­body could cost him rare pa­tient sam­ples and lead to month­long de­lays, and sub­se­quent chats with oth­er re­searchers con­vinced them there’s an op­por­tu­ni­ty here. Col­lat­ing da­ta from open ac­cess jour­nals and ink­ing deals with big name pub­lish­ers like Springer Na­ture, Wi­ley and JA­MA, Bench­Sci came up with a data­base of sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture that they then teach the com­put­er to read.

“So the sci­en­tist ba­si­cal­ly asks our sys­tem the ques­tion: Out of those 5,000 reagents or an­ti­bod­ies that are out there, which one will work on BR­CA1, in this tis­sue, in this spe­cif­ic cell line, in this mod­el, with this spec­i­fi­ca­tion,” Be­len­zon said, “and we re­al­ly nar­row down these 4 or 5,000 to 2 or 3 and then we say, hey, these are the an­ti­bod­ies most like­ly to work in your ex­per­i­ment, and here’s all the sci­en­tif­ic da­ta and the ex­per­i­men­tal re­sults that this spe­cif­ic reagent has gen­er­at­ed and sci­en­tists can ac­tu­al­ly see those re­sults and val­i­date it as well.”

That means con­dens­ing the whole process of se­lect­ing reagents — tra­di­tion­al­ly done by tri­al and er­ror — from 12 weeks to 30 sec­onds, ac­cord­ing to the com­pa­ny, re­duc­ing waste by 70% and sav­ing mil­lions of dol­lars in hard cost.

It’s not quite shav­ing years and tens of mil­lions off the drug dis­cov­ery process as oth­ers have promised (and many have doubt­ed). Yet Bench­Sci still cites some big num­bers: a $10.2 bil­lion per year op­por­tu­ni­ty for sav­ings on reagents, de­duced from the es­ti­mate that $28 bil­lion each year is wast­ed on ir­re­pro­ducible re­search, with reagents and ref­er­ence ma­te­ri­als ac­count­ing for 36.1%.

F-Prime Cap­i­tal, which led the Se­ries B, and oth­er in­vestors in­clud­ing North­leaf Cap­i­tal Part­ners, Gra­di­ent Ven­tures, In­ovia Cap­i­tal, Gold­en Ven­tures and Re­al Ven­tures would love to see them get there. But will they?

“They would be a per­fect ac­qui­si­tion tar­get for Gene­script, Qi­a­gen, Ther­mo Fish­er, or oth­er an­ti­body and reagent mak­er,” Alex Zha­voronkov, founder and CEO of AI drug dis­cov­ery start­up In­sil­i­co Med­i­cine, wrote to End­points. “With this mod­el they can quick­ly get to sub­stan­tial rev­enue pos­si­bly in tens of mil­lions but the mar­ket size is rather lim­it­ed and it will be dif­fi­cult to grow.”

As he pre­pares to dou­ble the size of his team to 140 to sup­port the growth in­to re­com­bi­nant pro­teins, RNAi, CRISPR, cell lines and more, Be­len­zon sees oth­er­wise.

“To­day in an age where you have AI com­pa­nies gen­er­at­ing more and more and more po­ten­tial­ly great tar­gets to study, there needs to be a com­pa­ny that helps to study those tar­gets faster and bet­ter and cheap­er,” he said. “That’s re­al­ly what we are fo­cus­ing on.”

The Price of Re­lief: Ex­plor­ing So­lu­tions to the Ris­ing Costs of On­col­o­gy Drugs

In 2020, The National Cancer Institute estimated about 1.8 million new cases of cancer diagnosed in the United States, while the costs associated with treatment therapies continued to escalate. Given the current legislative climate on drug pricing, it’s never been more important to look at the evolution of drug pricing globally and control concerns of sustainable and affordable treatments in oncology.

Lat­est news on Pfiz­er's $3B+ JAK1 win; Pacts over M&A at #JPM22; 2021 by the num­bers; Bio­gen's Aduhelm reck­on­ing; The sto­ry of sotro­vimab; 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.

For those of you who attended #JPM22 in any shape or form, we hope you had a fruitful time. Regardless of how you spent the past hectic week, may your weekend be just what you need it to be.

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A $3B+ peak sales win? Pfiz­er thinks so, as FDA of­fers a tardy green light to its JAK1 drug abroc­i­tinib

Back in the fall of 2020, newly crowned Pfizer chief Albert Bourla confidently put their JAK1 inhibitor abrocitinib at the top of the list of blockbuster drugs in the late-stage pipeline with a $3 billion-plus peak sales estimate.

Since then it’s been subjected to serious criticism for the safety warnings associated with the class, held back by a cautious FDA and questioned when researchers rolled out a top-line boast that their heavyweight contender had beaten the champ in the field of atopic dermatitis — Dupixent — in a head-to-head study.

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Robert Califf, FDA commissioner nominee (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP Images)

Rob Califf ad­vances as Biden's FDA nom­i­nee, with a close com­mit­tee vote

Rob Califf’s second confirmation process as FDA commissioner is already much more difficult than his near unanimous confirmation under the Obama administration.

The Senate Health Committee on Thursday voted 13-8 in favor of advancing Califf’s nomination to a full Senate vote. Several Democrats voted against Califf, including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Maggie Hassan. Several other Democrats who aren’t on the committee, like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, also said Thursday that they would not vote for Califf. Markey, Hassan and Manchin all previously expressed reservations about the prospect of Janet Woodcock as an FDA commissioner nominee too.

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Michel Vounatsos, Biogen CEO (World Economic Forum/Ciaran McCrickard)

Bio­gen vows to fight CM­S' draft cov­er­age de­ci­sion for Aduhelm be­fore April fi­nal­iza­tion

Biogen executives made clear in an investor call Thursday they are not preparing to run a new CMS-approved clinical trial for their controversial Alzheimer’s drug anytime soon.

As requested in a draft national coverage decision from CMS earlier this week, Biogen and other anti-amyloid drugs will need to show “a meaningful improvement in health outcomes” for Alzheimer’s patients in a randomized, placebo-controlled trial to get paid for their drugs, rather than just the reduction in amyloid plaques that won Aduhelm its accelerated approval in June.

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CRO own­er pleads guilty to ob­struct­ing FDA in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­to fal­si­fied clin­i­cal tri­al da­ta

The co-owner of a Florida-based clinical research site pleaded guilty to lying to an FDA investigator during a 2017 inspection, revealing that she falsely portrayed part of a GlaxoSmithKline pediatric asthma study as legitimate, when in fact she knew that certain data had been falsified, the Department of Justice said Wednesday.

Three other employees — Yvelice Villaman Bencosme, Lisett Raventos and Maytee Lledo — previously pleaded guilty and were sentenced in connection with falsifying data associated with the trial at the CRO Unlimited Medical Research.

Susan Galbraith, AstraZeneca EVP, Oncology R&D

Can­cer pow­er­house As­traZeneca rolls the dice on a $75M cash bet on a buzzy up­start in the on­col­o­gy field

After establishing itself in the front ranks of cancer drug developers and marketers, AstraZeneca is putting its scientific shoulder — and a significant amount of cash — behind the wheel of a brash new upstart in the biotech world.

The pharma giant trumpeted news this morning that it is handing over $75 million upfront to ally itself with Scorpion Therapeutics, one of those biotechs that was newly birthed by some top scientific, venture and executive talent and bequeathed with a fortune by way of a bankroll to advance an only hazily explained drug platform. And they are still very much in the discovery and preclinical phase.

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‘Skin­ny la­bels’ on gener­ics can save pa­tients mon­ey, re­search shows, but re­cent court de­ci­sions cloud fu­ture

New research shows how generic drug companies can successfully market a limited number of approved indications for a brand name drug, prior to coming to market for all of the indications. But several recent court decisions have created a layer of uncertainty around these so-called “skinny” labels.

While courts have generally allowed generic manufacturers to use their statutorily permitted skinny-label approvals, last summer, a federal circuit court found that Teva Pharmaceuticals was liable for inducing prescribers and patients to infringe GlaxoSmithKline’s patents through advertising and marketing practices that suggested Teva’s generic, with its skinny label, could be employed for the patented uses.

A patient in Alaska receiving an antibody infusion to prevent Covid hospitalizations in September. All but one of these treatments has been rendered useless by Omicron (Rick Bowmer/AP Images)

How a tiny Swiss lab and two old blood sam­ples cre­at­ed one of the on­ly ef­fec­tive drugs against Omi­cron (and why we have so lit­tle of it)

Exactly a decade before a novel coronavirus broke out in Wuhan, Davide Corti — a newly-minted immunologist with frameless glasses and a quick laugh — walked into a cramped lab on the top floor of an office building two hours outside Zurich. He had only enough money for two technicians and the ceiling was so low in parts that short stature was a job requirement, but Corti believed it’d be enough to test an idea he thought could change medicine.

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