Andrew Hopkins (Exscientia)

Look­ing to solve pub­lic health crises through dis­cov­ery, Gates Foun­da­tion taps AI firm Ex­sci­en­tia to look for an­swers

De­spite as­tro­nom­i­cal ad­vances in med­i­cine over the past few decades, pub­lic health has con­tin­ued to con­found re­searchers, par­tic­u­lar­ly in de­vel­op­ing na­tions. Could AI help crack the code on cheap and ef­fec­tive drug dis­cov­ery for pub­lic health? A Gates-backed AI firm is look­ing to find out.

The Bill & Melin­da Gates Foun­da­tion award­ed UK-based AI out­fit Ex­sci­en­tia a $4.2 mil­lion grant to help iden­ti­fy ex­ist­ing ther­a­pies and new mol­e­cules that could be used to tack­le pub­lic health crises, in­clud­ing malar­ia and tu­ber­cu­lo­sis as well as ma­ter­nal and in­fant mor­tal­i­ty through con­tra­cep­tives.

Ex­sci­en­tia will use its pro­pri­etary “Cen­taur” plat­form to both scour ex­ist­ing da­ta for ther­a­pies that could be used in one of those tar­get ar­eas as well start at the gene lev­el to find and de­vel­op nov­el com­pounds, CEO An­drew Hop­kins told End­points NewsThe team got the name for its Cen­taur al­go­rithms from chess Grand Mas­ter Gar­ry Kas­parov, who pi­o­neered a form of the game called “cen­taur chess,” which mar­ried hu­man and ma­chine learn­ing to out­wit sole­ly AI chess play­ers.

The Gates Foun­da­tion struck up a con­ver­sa­tion with Ex­sci­en­tia as it looked for new ways to dri­ve dis­cov­ery for un­der­fund­ed pub­lic health needs in an in­dus­try typ­i­cal­ly con­strained by the high cost of drug de­vel­op­ment. Hop­kins ar­gued that AI could play a ma­jor role in “de­moc­ra­tiz­ing” the process of drug dis­cov­ery and de­vel­op­ment and po­ten­tial­ly speed up the process of bring­ing those med­i­cines and nov­el com­pounds in­to the clin­ic much faster than the sci­ence and hu­man brains alone cur­rent­ly al­low.

“We are mak­ing drug dis­cov­ery far more ef­fi­cient,” Hop­kins said. “If we can dis­cov­er projects far more rapid­ly and spend less on the dis­cov­ery phase, we can think more about how we can bring more projects for­ward and in­ves­ti­gate them.”

Part of Ex­sci­en­tia’s goal will be look­ing for bis­pe­cif­ic mol­e­cules that can hit mul­ti­ple tar­gets at once, Hop­kins said. Do­ing so would give each of the com­pa­ny’s iden­ti­fied drugs a dou­ble wham­my, of sorts — and re­duce the need to de­vel­op two sep­a­rate ther­a­pies con­cur­rent­ly.

Ex­sci­en­tia was found­ed back in 2012 and was the first AI firm to be work­ing in the drug dis­cov­ery and de­vel­op­ment space at the ge­nom­ic scale, Hop­kins said. Since then, the field has blown up with many po­ten­tial play­ers tout­ing their ro­bot brain­trusts and the pos­si­bly rev­o­lu­tion­ary ef­fects on the bio­phar­ma in­dus­try.

For Hop­kins, the Gates part­ner­ship will pro­vide an­oth­er re­al-world da­ta point for the ap­plic­a­bil­i­ty of AI in dis­cov­ery as well as po­ten­tial­ly draw­ing a new path for­ward in which ther­a­pies can bust through the 10- to 15-year idea-to-mar­ket life cy­cle.

“If we can think about how we can re­duce the speed of dis­cov­ery, we can think about how we can go af­ter more in­no­v­a­tive tar­gets,” Hop­kins said. “Our mis­sion is to solve drug dis­cov­ery, which would al­low us to then think about how we can ex­pand the uni­verse of com­mer­cial in­no­va­tions.”

Biotech Half­time Re­port: Af­ter a bumpy year, is biotech ready to re­bound?

The biotech sector has come down firmly from the highs of February as negative sentiment takes hold. The sector had a major boost of optimism from the success of the COVID-19 vaccines, making investors keenly aware of the potential of biopharma R&D engines. But from early this year, clinical trial, regulatory and access setbacks have reminded investors of the sector’s inherent risks.

RBC Capital Markets recently surveyed investors to take the temperature of the market, a mix of specialists/generalists and long-only/ long-short investment strategies. Heading into the second half of the year, investors mostly see the sector as undervalued (49%), a large change from the first half of the year when only 20% rated it as undervalued. Around 41% of investors now believe that biotech will underperform the S&P500 in the second half of 2021. Despite that view, 54% plan to maintain their position in the market and 41% still plan to increase their holdings.

How to col­lect and sub­mit RWD to win ap­proval for a new drug in­di­ca­tion: FDA spells it out in a long-await­ed guid­ance

Real-world data is messy. There can be differences in the standards used to collect different types of data, differences in terminologies and curation strategies, and even in the way data is exchanged.

While acknowledging this somewhat controlled chaos, the FDA is now explaining how biopharma companies can submit study data derived from real-world data (RWD) sources in applicable regulatory submissions, including new drug indications.

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David Livingston (Credit: Michael Sazel for CeMM)

Renowned Dana-Far­ber sci­en­tist, men­tor and bio­phar­ma ad­vi­sor David Liv­ingston has died

David Livingston, the Dana-Farber/Harvard Med scientist who helped shine a light on some of the key molecular drivers of breast and ovarian cancer, died unexpectedly last Sunday.

One of the senior leaders at Dana-Farber during his nearly half century of work there, Livingston was credited with shedding light on the genes that regulate cell growth, with insights into inherited BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations that helped lay the scientific foundation for targeted therapies and earlier detection that have transformed the field.

David Lockhart, ReCode Therapeutics CEO

Pfiz­er throws its weight be­hind LNP play­er eye­ing mR­NA treat­ments for CF, PCD

David Lockhart did not see the meteoric rise of messenger RNA and lipid nanoparticles coming.

Thanks to the worldwide fight against Covid-19, mRNA — the genetic code that can be engineered to turn the body into a mini protein factory — and LNPs, those tiny bubbles of fat carrying those instructions, have found their way into hundreds of millions of people. Within the biotech world, pioneers like Alnylam and Intellia have demonstrated just how versatile LNPs can be as a delivery vehicle for anything from siRNA to CRISPR/Cas9.

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Leen Kawas (L) has resigned as CEO of Athira and will be replaced by COO Mark Litton

Ex­clu­sive: Athi­ra CEO Leen Kawas re­signs af­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tion finds she ma­nip­u­lat­ed da­ta

Leen Kawas, CEO and founder of the Alzheimer’s upstart Athira Pharma, has resigned after an internal investigation found she altered images in her doctoral thesis and four other papers that were foundational to establishing the company.

Mark Litton, the company’s COO since June 2019 and a longtime biotech executive, has been named full-time CEO. Kawas, meanwhile, will no longer have ties to the company except for owning a few hundred thousand shares.

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Sur­geons suc­cess­ful­ly at­tach pig kid­ney to a hu­man for the first time, us­ing tech from Unit­ed's Re­vivi­cor

In a first, researchers reportedly successfully transplanted a pig kidney into a human without triggering an immediate immune response this week. And the technology came from the biotech United Therapeutics.

Surgeons spent three days attaching the kidney to the patient’s blood vessels, but when all was said and done, the kidney appeared to be functioning normally in early testing, Reuters and the New York Times were among those to report. The kidney came from a genetically altered pig developed through United’s Revivicor unit.

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Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL, foreground) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) (Patrick Semansky/AP Images)

Sen­a­tors back FDA's plan to re­quire manda­to­ry pre­scriber ed­u­ca­tion for opi­oids

Three Senate Democrats are backing an FDA plan to require mandatory prescriber education for opioids as overdose deaths have risen sharply over the past decade, with almost 97,000 American opioid-related overdose deaths in the past year alone.

While acknowledging a decline in overall opioid analgesic dispensing in recent years, the FDA said it’s reconsidering the need for mandatory prescriber training through a REMS given the current situation with overdoses, and is seeking input on the aspects of the opioid crisis that mandatory training could potentially mitigate.

Suresh Katta, Saama CEO (via YouTube)

As AI con­tin­ues to en­tice Big Phar­ma, a Car­lyle-led drug­mak­er syn­di­cate shells out $430M for cloud com­put­ing play­er

The AI revolution permeating Big Pharma took a big financial step forward Wednesday, with VCs and major drugmakers coming together to acquire a cloud-focused company.

Led by the Carlyle Group, the investors will put up $430 million for a majority stake in Saama, a company that collects patient data to help speed along the drug development process. The investment arms of Pfizer, Merck, Amgen and McKesson all participated in the financing, in addition to other prominent life sciences VCs like Northpond.

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Bris­tol My­ers pledges to sell its Ac­celeron shares as ac­tivist in­vestors cir­cle Mer­ck­'s $11.5B buy­out — re­port

Just as Avoro Capital’s campaign to derail Merck’s proposed $11.5 billion buyout of Acceleron gains steam, Bristol Myers Squibb is leaning in with some hefty counterweight.

The pharma giant is planning to tender its Acceleron shares, Bloomberg reported, which add up to a sizable 11.5% stake. Based on the offer price, the sale would net Bristol Myers around $1.3 billion.

To complete its deal, Merck needs a majority of shareholders to agree to sell their shares.