Sean McClain, AbSci

On a mis­sion to 'u­ni­fy' drug dis­cov­ery and cell-line de­vel­op­ment, Ab­Sci ac­quires AI out­fit De­n­ovi­um

Imag­ine dis­cov­er­ing a drug and cell line at the click of a but­ton. That’s the goal of Ab­Sci CEO Sean Mc­Clain — and on Mon­day, he closed on a deal to buy De­n­ovi­um and its AI en­gine that tran­scends the hu­man brain and even the best of lab tools.

“Es­sen­tial­ly what we’re do­ing is we’re tak­ing all this da­ta…that looks at man­u­fac­tura­bil­i­ty and drug func­tion­al­i­ty, and then feed­ing it in­to the AI plat­form that’s con­tin­u­al­ly learn­ing,” Mc­Clain told End­points. “Every mol­e­cule we have is fed in­to the mod­el,” he said.

While the De­n­ovi­um En­gine is built to pre­dict the func­tion and be­hav­ior of pro­teins, Ab­Sci will train it fur­ther us­ing bil­lions of da­ta points the biotech has col­lect­ed on man­u­fac­tura­bil­i­ty, func­tion­al­i­ty and ex­pres­sion.

“A lot of peo­ple when they think of AI and pro­teins they think struc­ture,” De­n­ovi­um CBO Imad Aj­jawi said. “And so the De­n­ovi­um En­gine has learned the fun­da­men­tal prop­er­ties of func­tion, which in­cludes struc­ture, but al­so a lot of oth­er dif­fer­ent prop­er­ties as well, and a lot of dif­fer­ent pa­ra­me­ters.”

Imad Aj­jawi

Over time, the ma­chine be­comes more and more ac­cu­rate. It loves neg­a­tive re­sults and learns from its mis­takes.

“It learns and learns un­til you get to the point where it’s no longer spit­ting out, you know, bil­lions of dif­fer­ent things you should test, it’s start­ing to spit out thou­sands, and then hun­dreds and then ul­ti­mate­ly you get to the point where it is ful­ly pre­dic­tive,” Mc­Clain said.

Ab­Sci was found­ed in 2011 in Port­land. The biotech, now based in Van­cou­ver, Wash­ing­ton, has been work­ing on a more ef­fi­cient way to man­u­fac­ture pro­teins — from full-length an­ti­bod­ies to in­sulin — us­ing E. coli. It went com­mer­cial in 2018 with its E. Coli ex­pres­sion plat­form, SoluPro, for pro­duc­ing sol­u­ble, com­plex pro­teins in high yields. The fol­low­ing year, it in­tro­duced its pro­tein print­ing plat­form, which builds on SoluPro with tech­nol­o­gy de­signed to pump out high-di­ver­si­ty strain li­braries and high-through­put screen­ing as­says.

“We’ve tak­en our pro­tein print­ing plat­form, and what we have used for cell-line de­vel­op­ment, we’re now able to ac­tu­al­ly use in screen­ing and in drug dis­cov­ery,” Mc­Clain said. “Es­sen­tial­ly we’re tak­ing this very lin­ear process that takes years to com­plete… which we can ba­si­cal­ly con­dense… in­to one process and do it in one fell swoop.”

Mc­Clain said the new ap­proach could al­low re­searchers to go from dis­cov­ery to a cell line that’s ready for man­u­fac­tur­ing in weeks, “if not days.”

The com­pa­nies are keep­ing the terms of the deal un­der wraps for now.

The news comes a few months af­ter Ab­Sci land­ed a $65 mil­lion Se­ries E, which it tagged for a new 60,000-square-foot fa­cil­i­ty in Van­cou­ver. Back in Jan­u­ary 2019, the biotech inked a big phar­ma part­ner­ship to ap­ply its SoluPro plat­form to two of Sanofi’s bio­ther­a­peu­tic mol­e­cules. And In Sep­tem­ber 2020, it li­censed SoluPro to Al­pha Can­cer Tech­nolo­gies for the pro­duc­tion of Re­com­bi­nant Hu­man Al­pha-fe­to­pro­tein (hAFP) for var­i­ous au­toim­mune dis­eases and can­cers.

The AI space has been heat­ing up, as biotechs look for smarter and faster ways to get things done. In De­cem­ber, Genen­tech-part­nered Gen­e­sis Ther­a­peu­tics land­ed a $52 mil­lion Se­ries A round to build out its AI pipeline. Al­so last month, 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.

“It’s the next dis­rup­tive tech­nol­o­gy in this in­dus­try,” Aj­jawi said of AI. “We’ve al­ready seen it trans­form oth­er in­dus­tries, and we’re al­ready see­ing how it’s trans­form­ing biotech as well.”

5AM Ven­tures: Fu­el­ing the Next Gen­er­a­tion of In­no­va­tors

By RBC Capital Markets
With Andy Schwab, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at 5AM Ventures

Key Points

Prescription Digital Therapeutics, cell therapy technologies, and in silico medicines will be a vital part of future treatment modalities.
Unlocking the potential of the microbiome could be the missing link to better disease diagnosis.
Growing links between academia, industry, and venture capital are spinning out more innovative biotech companies.
Biotech is now seen by investors as a growth space as well as a safe haven, fuelling the recent IPO boom.

Janet Woodcock (AP Images)

End­points poll: Janet Wood­cock takes the (in­ter­im) helm at the FDA. And a large ma­jor­i­ty of our read­ers want her to stay there

It’s official: Janet Woodcock is now the acting chief of the FDA.

And — according to an Endpoints poll — most industry readers would like her to stay there, although a significant minority is strongly opposed.

To recap: Joe Biden is reportedly choosing between Woodcock and former deputy FDA commissioner Joshua Sharfstein as his nominee for the permanent position. Given their respective track records, the decision is set to determine the agency’s lodestar for years to come.

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What’s next for End­points — and how to sup­port our in­de­pen­dent bio­phar­ma news mis­sion

The firehose of biopharma news is gushing these days.

That’s why broader and deeper is the theme for 2021 at Endpoints. You can expect new coverage outside our core R&D focus, with deeper reporting in some key areas. When John Carroll and I launched Endpoints nearly five years ago, we were wading in waist-high waters. Now we’re a team of 25 full-time staffers (and growing) with plans to cover the flood of biopharma news, Endpoints-style.

Eli Lil­ly's an­ti­body cuts risk of Covid-19 by up to 80% among the most vul­ner­a­ble — but will it have a place next to vac­cines?

Eli Lilly says bamlanivimab lowered the risk of contracting symptomatic Covid-19 in a first-of-its-kind trial involving nursing home residents and staff, paving the way for a new option to protect against the virus.

But how big of an impact it might have, and what role it will play, at a time vaccines are being rolled out to the exact population it is targeting still remains unclear.

Among 965 participants in the study — all of whom tested negative for the coronavirus at baseline — the number of symptomatic cases reported in the bamlanivimab arm was 57% lower than that in the placebo arm (odds ratio 0.43, p=0.00021). In addition to that primary endpoint, all secondary endpoints reached statistical significance.

Michelle McMurry-Heath, BIO CEO (BIO via YouTube)

BIO looks to re­struc­ture, lay­ing off staff amid chal­lenge to the trade org's nor­mal face-to-face style

The biopharma industry, on the whole, had a red-letter year in 2020 amid Covid-19, with fundraising at an all-time high and major players speeding vaccines ahead to approval. But for BIO, the industry’s leading trade organization, the pandemic has prompted a reconsideration of the game plan.

BIO will pivot to digital as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage, making “some staff reductions” as it looks to bring its roughly 37,000 in-person meetings each year to the web, the organization said Thursday.

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Hal Barron, GSK R&D chief (GSK via YouTube)

Glax­o­SmithK­line's $4B bis­pe­cif­ic can­cer drug al­liance with Mer­ck KGaA hit by big set­back with a PhI­II fail­ure on NSCLC

Close to 2 years ago, GSK’s R&D team eagerly agreed to pay up to $4 billion-plus to ally itself with Merck KGaA on a mid-stage bispecific called bintrafusp alfa, which intrigued them with the combination of a TGF-β trap with the anti-PD-L1 mechanism in one fusion protein.

But today the German pharma company says that their lead study on lung cancer was a bust, as independent monitors said there was no reason to believe that the experimental drug — targeting PD-L1/TGF-Beta — could beat Keytruda.

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Covid-19 roundup: Italy won­ders aloud if it can sue Pfiz­er for vac­cine short­falls; Flood, dead­ly fire threat­en As­traZeneca vac­cine plants

As reports crop up that deliveries of Pfizer and BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine are being unexpectedly cut, Italy wonders if it can take the vaccine developers to court, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

After its shipment for this week was cut by 29%, the Italian government consulted its attorney general about taking legal action, the WSJ reported. Pfizer and BioNTech had warned the EU and Canada last week that their allocations would be reduced as Pfizer upgrades its Belgium factory. What Italy says it doesn’t appreciate, though, is the short notice.

Mike Grey, Plexium chairman (Horizon Therapeutics)

Plex­i­um adds in­dus­try vet Mike Grey to the brain trust with new in­vestor cash fund­ing its pro­tein degra­da­tion play

About 15 months since closing a $28 million Series A, a San Diego protein-degradation upstart returned to the venture well Thursday with an extension of that round and some new hires, including one of the city’s best-connected biotech execs.

Plexium has bagged an additional $35 million in financing, the biotech said, money that will push undisclosed oncology and immuno-oncology programs into the clinic. In addition, longtime industry vet Mike Grey is jumping on as chairman of the board, and two others from Thursday’s leads — Adam Goulburn from Lux Capital and Rob Hopfner from Pivotal BioVentures — joined the board too.

Robert Habib (file photo)

Once laser-fo­cused on liv­er, Mi­NA takes swing at neu­rol­o­gy with Servier's back­ing

Once focused on hard-to-treat liver diseases, MiNA Therapeutics is joining forces with Servier to engage its small activating RNA technology on another difficult front: neurology.

MiNA and Servier announced a new research alliance Thursday centered around neurological disorders. While the partners are keeping quiet about their targets for now, MiNA CEO Robert Habib vaguely revealed that the first one was nominated by Servier, which has an option over it. MiNA stands to receive up to $266.3 million (€220 million) in an upfront payment and milestones on that target alone, though they declined to break those numbers down any further.