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.”

Da­ta Lit­er­a­cy: The Foun­da­tion for Mod­ern Tri­al Ex­e­cu­tion

In 2016, the International Council for Harmonisation (ICH) updated their “Guidelines for Good Clinical Practice.” One key shift was a mandate to implement a risk-based quality management system throughout all stages of a clinical trial, and to take a systematic, prioritized, risk-based approach to clinical trial monitoring—on-site monitoring, remote monitoring, or any combination thereof.

Mer­ck scraps Covid-19 vac­cine pro­grams af­ter they fail to mea­sure up on ef­fi­ca­cy in an­oth­er ma­jor set­back in the glob­al fight

After turning up late to the vaccine development game in the global fight against Covid-19, Merck is now making a quick exit.

The pharma giant is reporting this morning that it’s decided to drop development of 2 vaccines — V590 and V591 — after taking a look at Phase I data that simply don’t measure up to either the natural immune response seen in people exposed to the virus or the vaccines already on or near the market.

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Can strug­gling Iterum turn the cor­ner to an an­tibi­ot­ic suc­cess sto­ry? They will know in six months

More than five years after Corey Fishman and Michael Dunne dusted sulopenem off Pfizer’s shelves — the second castoff antibiotic they’ve brought out of the pharma giant — and founded Iterum Therapeutics around that single drug, they have lined up a quick shot at approval with priority review from the FDA.

The decision, six months from now, will mark a make-or-break moment for a struggling biotech that has just enough cash to keep the lights on until the third quarter.

Matt Gline (L) and Vivek Ramaswamy

Scoop: Vivek Ra­maswamy is hand­ing the CEO job to a top lieu­tenant at Roivant — but he’s not ex­act­ly leav­ing the biotech scene

Over the past 7 years since founding Roivant, Vivek Ramaswamy has been a constant blur of biotech building motion.

He launched his first biotech with an Alzheimer’s drug he picked up cheap, and watched the experiment implode in one of the highest profile pivotal disasters seen in the last decade. But it didn’t slow the 30-something exec down; if anything, he hit the accelerator. Ramaswamy blazed global paths and went on to raise billions to spur the creation of a large lineup of little Vants promising big things at a fast pace. He sold off a section of the Vant brigade to Sumitomo Dainippon for $3 billion. And more recently the relentless dealmaker has been building a computational discovery arm to add an AI-driven approach to kicking up new programs and companies, supplementing the in-licensing drive while pursuing advances that have created more than 700 jobs at Roivant, with $2 billion in reserves.

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Bahija Jallal, Immunocore

Buried in Im­muno­core's IPO fil­ings? A kick­back scheme from a now for­mer em­ploy­ee

Immunocore spent much of 2019 dealing with the fallout of the Neil Woodford scandal, as the former star investor’s fall crashed the biotech’s valuation out of unicorn range. Now it turns out that the company spent 2020 dealing with another internal scandal.

The longtime UK biotech darling disclosed in their IPO filing last week that they had fallen victim to an alleged kickback scheme involving one of their employees. After a whistleblower came forward, they said in their F-1, they spent the summer and spring investigating, finding fraud on the part of an employee and two outside vendors.

Stéphane Bancel, Moderna CEO (Steven Ferdman/Getty Images)

Covid-19 roundup: Mod­er­na dou­bles down on Covid-19 with new boost­er tri­als; Aus­tralia plans do­mes­tic pro­duc­tion of As­traZeneca vac­cine amid dis­tri­b­u­tion lag

As Merck bows out of the global race to develop vaccines for Covid-19, Moderna is doubling down to make sure they can quell new variants that have recently emerged and quickly spread.

The Cambridge, MA-based biotech put out word on Monday that in vivo studies indicate their mRNA vaccine works well enough against two strains first detected in the UK and South Africa. But with a six-fold reduction in neutralizing titers observed against the latter strain, the company is launching a new study of a booster version to make sure it can do the job.

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Jean-Christophe-Hyvert, Lonza

Lon­za look­ing to build on 'd­if­fer­en­ti­at­ed ad­van­tage' in Covid-19, CD­MO mar­ket­place in 2021

It’s not new for Lonza, the Swiss CDMO nearing its quasquicentennial anniversary, to be in the upper echelon of the biotech manufacturing industry.

But 2020 — as it was for many CDMOs — was a special year even by Lonza’s standards. The company inked a deal to produce 1 billion worldwide doses of Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine and tapped pharma vet Pierre-Alain Ruffieux to lead its operations, moves which have allowed Lonza to make a myriad of other deals that will continue to ramp up its global production capacity.

News brief­ing: Jef­frey Lei­den to chair Tmu­ni­ty board of di­rec­tors; Op­di­vo wins new ap­proval in ad­vanced RCC

Longtime Vertex CEO Jeffrey Leiden is taking on a new role.

Leiden has been appointed chairman of Tmunity’s board of directors, the company announced Monday. The move comes about a year and a half after Leiden announced he’d be stepping down from his position at Vertex.

Vertex saw immense growth under Leiden, leading the company from its exit out of hepatitis C, when cures were moving in, and into cystic fibrosis. The company’s cystic fibrosis triple combo therapy Trikafta is already its best-seller, reaching the distinction just six weeks after launch and recording the strongest first quarter of sales for any drug, per some estimates.

Ron Cooper, Albireo CEO

Al­bireo just ad­vanced down to the 10-yard line at the FDA. And Ron Coop­er’s team is get­ting prepped for the next big play

When Albireo Pharma’s board $ALBO moved to bring in Ron Cooper as the CEO more than 5 years ago, the development-stage company went with an experienced commercial player who had a big-time position on his resume after running Bristol Myers’ commercial ops in Europe.

Now, after successfully navigating a pivotal study, putting them in a foot race with a rival toward an FDA OK, Cooper is getting a boost from regulators on the last drive back to an arena he understands completely.

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