Iya Khalil, Merck VP and head of data, AI and genome sciences (Novartis)

Mer­ck-No­var­tis re­volv­ing door spins again as AI leader Iya Khalil switch­es phar­mas

As talk of AI this-and-that gob­bles up head­line af­ter head­line, one Big Phar­ma is los­ing its AI leader as she tran­si­tions to an­oth­er drug gi­ant: Iya Khalil will trade in her hat as No­var­tis’ go-to ex­pert and leader in the space for Mer­ck as VP and head of da­ta, AI and genome sci­ences next week.

Af­ter near­ly three years lead­ing the ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence team at No­var­tis — as Big Phar­ma and biotechs alike latch on­to the ripen­ing AI-for-drug-dis­cov­ery mode of op­er­a­tion — Khalil will switch em­ploy­ers to head up a sim­i­lar post at Mer­ck, where she’ll work out of Cam­bridge, MA be­gin­ning Feb. 13, the com­pa­ny tells End­points News.

In her farewell post on LinkedIn this week, Khalil thanked No­var­tis and her col­leagues, with a spe­cif­ic shout-out re­served for Fiona Mar­shall, the vet­er­an drug hunter who swapped the role of head of dis­cov­ery at Mer­ck for the chief post at No­var­tis In­sti­tutes for Bio­Med­ical Re­search last fall.

“I will es­pe­cial­ly miss all of my col­leagues for their gen­er­ous spir­it and re­lent­less com­mit­ment to sci­ence and ad­vanc­ing med­i­cines for pa­tients,” Khalil said in her post to the net­work­ing site. “You are all amaz­ing and please keep on ex­e­cut­ing the im­por­tant mis­sion of reimag­in­ing med­i­cine to im­prove the lives of pa­tients world­wide.”

Khalil joined No­var­tis in May 2020 af­ter help­ing build Gene Net­work Sci­ences, a health­care da­ta an­a­lyt­ics com­pa­ny that changed its name to GNS Health­care dur­ing her two-decade jour­ney there, which was book­marked by mul­ti­ple years as chief com­mer­cial of­fi­cer. GNS is now known as Aitia.

Al­so on her ré­sumé is an ad­vi­so­ry role to the agri­cul­tur­al de­vel­op­ment arm of the Bill & Melin­da Gates Foun­da­tion and board di­rec­tor for Cropin, an AI com­pa­ny for farm­ers that is fund­ed by the Mi­crosoft founder’s phil­an­thropic group. She sits on the board of Flag­ship Pi­o­neer­ing’s agri­cul­ture biotech start­up In­vaio Sci­ences and has been on the board of the non­prof­it Ac­cel­er­at­ed Cure Pro­ject for Mul­ti­ple Scle­ro­sis.

She will head up Mer­ck’s da­ta & genome sci­ences out­fit, the com­pa­ny said, which is tasked with the gamut of ge­net­ic, mul­ti-om­ic and deep phe­no­typ­ic da­ta. The goal is to as­sess and in­ves­ti­gate that trove of da­ta to im­prove drug dis­cov­ery and strength­en the phar­ma’s clin­i­cal de­vel­op­ment.

Last Feb­ru­ary, Khalil told End­points the AI rev­o­lu­tion in drug R&D will take many “shots on goal.”

“We’re at a place now where we’re hav­ing many com­pa­nies now do this, many biotech com­pa­nies as well as phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies such as our­selves, take shots at do­ing this where there’s go­ing to be a va­ri­ety of ap­proach­es,” Khalil said. “And it’s not just about the AI, it’s re­al­ly about how you make the en­tire thing work.”

As AI seeps in­to more nooks and cran­nies in Big Phar­ma, Mer­ck has fur­ther en­trenched it­self with bur­geon­ing com­pa­nies in the space. That in­cludes a three-drug pact with BigHat Bio­sciences, bi­o­log­ics cre­ator Ab­sci and cloud com­put­ing play­er Saa­ma, which fo­cus­es on pa­tient da­ta.

The phar­ma gi­ant al­so cre­at­ed a 10-month ac­cel­er­a­tor pro­gram for AI and ma­chine learn­ing bio­med­ical star­tups last year as part of the Mer­ck Dig­i­tal Sci­ences Stu­dio, which in­cludes Deep For­est Sci­ences, Pep­per Bio and oth­ers.

Ed­i­tor’s note: This sto­ry has been up­dat­ed to in­clude GNS’ new name, Aitia.

Forge Bi­o­log­ics’ cGMP Com­pli­ant and Com­mer­cial­ly Vi­able Be­spoke Affin­i­ty Chro­matog­ra­phy Plat­form

Forge Biologics has developed a bespoke affinity chromatography platform approach that factors in unique vector combinations to streamline development timelines and assist our clients in efficiently entering the clinic. By leveraging our experience with natural and novel serotypes and transgene conformations, we are able to accelerate affinity chromatography development by nearly 3-fold. Many downstream purification models are serotype-dependent, demanding unique and time-consuming development strategies for each AAV gene therapy product1. With the increasing demand to propel AAV gene therapies to market, platform purification methods that support commercial-scale manufacturing of high-quality vectors with excellent safety and efficacy profiles are essential.

Stéphane Bancel, Moderna CEO (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Mod­er­na so­lid­i­fies deal with Kenya to build mR­NA man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­i­ty

The mRNA player Moderna is further cementing its presence on the African continent.

Moderna announced on Thursday that it has finalized an agreement with Kenya’s government to partner up and bring an mRNA manufacturing facility to the east African nation. The new facility aims to manufacture up to 500 million doses of vaccines annually. Moderna also said the new facility will have the ability to spike its production capabilities to respond to public health emergencies on the continent or globally.

Ribbon cutting ceremony for Thermo Fisher's new cell therapy manufacturing site in San Francisco

Ther­mo Fish­er moves on cam­pus with new cell man­u­fac­tur­ing site in San Fran­cis­co

Thermo Fisher Scientific is putting down more roots in the Bay Area.

The manufacturer opened the doors to a new cell therapy manufacturing facility next to the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center’s Mission Bay campus and on the university’s campus.

UCSF and Thermo Fisher have had a partnership since 2021, with the new site focusing on manufacturing cell therapeutics for certain cancers, including glioblastoma and multiple myeloma. The new site plans to use Thermo Fisher’s expertise in manufacturing services to help UCSF accelerate the development of cell therapies and eventually get them into the clinic, said Dan Herring, the general manager of cell therapy services at Thermo Fisher, in an interview with Endpoints News.

Luke Miels, GSK chief commercial officer

GSK picks up Scynex­is' FDA-ap­proved an­ti­fun­gal drug for $90M up­front

GSK is dishing out $90 million cash to add an antifungal drug to its commercial portfolio, in a deal spotlighting the pharma giant’s growing focus on infectious diseases.

The upfront will lock in an exclusive license to Scynexis’ Brexafemme, which was approved in 2021 to treat a yeast infection known as vulvovaginal candidiasis, except in China and certain other countries where Scynexis already out-licensed the drug.

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CSL CEO Paul McKenzie (L) and CMO Bill Mezzanotte

Q&A: New­ly-mint­ed CSL chief ex­ec­u­tive Paul McKen­zie and chief med­ical of­fi­cer Bill Mez­zan­otte

Paul McKenzie took over as CEO of Australian pharma giant CSL this month, following in the footsteps of long-time CSL vet Paul Perreault.

With an eye on mRNA, and quickly commercializing its new, $3.5 million-per-shot gene therapy for hemophilia B, McKenzie and chief medical officer Bill Mezzanotte answered some questions from Endpoints News this afternoon about where McKenzie is going to take the company and what advances may be coming to market from CSL’s pipeline. Below is a lightly edited transcript.

Man­u­fac­tur­ing roundup: Catal­ent to pro­duce low-cost ver­sion of nalox­one; CSL opens R&D site

Catalent will be manufacturing a low-cost version of the opioid overdose treatment naloxone as part of a contract with Harm Reduction Therapeutics.

Catalent plans to manufacture the treatment at its facility in Morrisville, NC. No financial details on the deal were disclosed.

Harm Reduction was granted priority review status for the NDA on its spray last year. The company has been working on a naloxone product since 2017. It is anticipating approval in July of this year and a US launch in early 2024.

As­pen looks to re­bound in pro­duc­tion and rev­enue af­ter Covid-19

Last year, South African-based vaccine manufacturer Aspen Pharmacare was facing reports that it had not received a single order for its manufactured Covid-19 shots and that manufacturing lines were sitting idle. But now the vaccine producer is looking to turn things around.

Aspen’s disclosure of its financial results in March unveiled that manufacturing revenue had decreased by 12% to R 603 million ($33.8 million), which Lorraine Hill, Aspen Group’s COO, said is attributable to lower Covid vaccine sales.

Mathai Mammen, FogPharma's next CEO

Math­ai Mam­men hands in J&J's R&D keys to lead Greg Ver­dine’s Fog­Phar­ma 

In the early 1990s, Mathai Mammen was a teaching assistant in Greg Verdine’s Science B46 course at Harvard. In June, the former R&D head at Johnson & Johnson will succeed Verdine as CEO, president and chair of FogPharma, the same month the seven-year-old biotech kickstarts its first clinical trial.

After leading R&D at one of the largest drugmakers in the world, taking the company through more than half a dozen drug approvals in the past few years, not to mention a Covid-19 vaccine race, Mammen departed J&J last month and will take the helm of a Cambridge, MA biotech attempting to go after what Verdine calls the “true emperor of all oncogenes” — beta-catenin.

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Feng Zhang (Susan Walsh/AP Images)

In search of new way to de­liv­er gene ed­i­tors, CRISPR pi­o­neer turns to mol­e­c­u­lar sy­ringes

Bug bacteria are ruthless.

Some soil bacteria have evolved tiny, but deadly injection systems that attach to insect cells, perforate them and release toxins inside — killing a bug in just a few days’ time. Scientists, on the other hand, want to leverage that system to deliver medicines.

In a paper published Wednesday in Nature, MIT CRISPR researcher Feng Zhang and his lab describe how they engineered these syringes made by bacteria to deliver potential therapies like toxins that kill cancer cells and gene editors. With the help of an AI program, they developed syringes that can load proteins of their choice and selectively target human cells.

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