Atomwise co-founders Abe Heifets and Izhar Wallach (photo courtesy Atomwise)

Plot­ting to be the Bridge­Bio of AI, Atom­wise lands $123 mil­lion Se­ries B for hype-heavy plat­form

The PR-friend­ly, well-part­nered AI biotech that’s pro­voked stern skep­ti­cism in some sci­en­tif­ic cor­ners is get­ting a boat­load of new cash.

Atom­wise has an­nounced a $123 mil­lion Se­ries B round led by San­abil In­vest­ments — a sub­sidiary of the Sau­di roy­al fund — and B Cap­i­tal Group and joined by DCVC and Y Com­bi­na­tor, among oth­ers. The new round is near­ly triple what Atom­wise had raised pri­or and will go to­wards both scal­ing their mol­e­cule-hunt­ing soft­ware and build­ing the grow­ing net­work of spin­outs they’re launch­ing to de­vel­op some of the mol­e­cules that soft­ware has turned up.

The goal ul­ti­mate­ly, said CEO Abe Heifets, is to build a port­fo­lio of small­er biotechs be­neath theirs — a kind of Bridge­Bio for AI.

“We want to grow in scale,” Heifets told End­points News. “The tech­nol­o­gy is small mol­e­cule — that’s a very broad um­brel­la so there’s in­creas­ing­ly an in­ter­est in a port­fo­lio ap­proach”

The round could be a le­git­i­mat­ing one for Atom­wise, a com­pa­ny that over the last few years has found it­self at the cen­ter of a de­bate be­tween en­gi­neers who promised that ma­chine learn­ing and AI net­works could re­make drug de­vel­op­ment and sci­en­tists who saw a lot of buzz but lit­tle sub­stance. Since its days at Y Com­bi­na­tor, the com­pa­ny has promised to use an AI con­vo­lu­tion­al net­work to rapid­ly screen bil­lions of mol­e­cules for their abil­i­ty to hit a tar­get or bind to a pro­tein, and in do­ing so speed from “years to days” the process of se­lect­ing drug can­di­dates. In do­ing so, they said, they could cut short the ar­du­ous and ex­pen­sive drug de­vel­op­ment path.

The prob­lem, crit­ics such as sci­ence blog­ger and med­i­c­i­nal chemist Derek Lowe ar­gued, is that it just doesn’t take that long to screen mol­e­cules. It’s a bump in the drug dis­cov­ery moun­tain.

“You can do a mil­lion in six weeks. The whole com­pound screen­ing step is just an­oth­er ear­ly thing in pre­clin­i­cal space,” Lowe wrote in one piece that al­so not­ed Atom­wise’s “ten­den­cy to­ward over­state­ment.”

“I’ve nev­er seen a suc­cess­ful project in which it was a rate-lim­it­ing step. But ‘shave a few weeks off some­thing at the very be­gin­ning’ isn’t as com­pelling an of­fer, is it?” he said.

Though just one of many com­pa­nies now of­fer­ing rapid, AI-en­abled screen­ing, Atom­wise might be the most pro­lif­ic, claim­ing “over 750 re­search col­lab­o­ra­tions ad­dress­ing over 600 dis­ease tar­gets” and part­ner­ships with ma­jor phar­ma com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Eli Lil­ly, Mer­ck, Ko­rea’s Han­soh Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, Bay­er and Bridge­Bio.

Yet it has ad­ver­tised those big-name part­ner­ships with par­tic­u­lar fan­fare. Rather than cal­cu­late the over­all po­ten­tial deal val­ue by up­front fees and mile­stones, as most biotechs do, they have of­ten list­ed val­ues that in­clude roy­al­ty es­ti­mates “based on his­tor­i­cal av­er­age rev­enues for small mol­e­cule drugs … with suc­cess in all projects” — in an in­dus­try where suc­cess is fleet­ing­ly rare. That’s al­lowed the com­pa­ny to ad­ver­tise that “Atom­wise has signed more than $5.5 bil­lion in to­tal deal val­ue with cor­po­rate part­ners to date” with­out dis­clos­ing any in­di­vid­ual pay­ments.

Heifets says that their deal re­leas­es are in line with how oth­er biotechs talk about their deals and what their part­ners are will­ing to dis­close. He al­so says Atom­wise pro­vides ben­e­fits be­yond that ini­tial screen­ing step.

“If you think of AI as on­ly be­ing ap­plied for high through­put screen­ing, then I agree with Derek,” he said. “That’s a be­gin­ning part and that’s pret­ty quick.”

Heifets said that Atom­wise al­so pro­vides ser­vices for lead op­ti­miza­tion, a longer and more dif­fi­cult step. And he said that they’ve shown the soft­ware can not on­ly find mol­e­cules faster but al­so find mol­e­cules for tar­gets that ma­jor com­pa­nies have spent years and mil­lions of dol­lars fail­ing to hit.

Most no­tably, Atom­wise launched X-37 last year in part around the dis­cov­ery of mol­e­cules that can bind to the PIM3 path­way with­out harm­ing healthy tis­sue, which Heifets said Roche, No­var­tis and As­traZeneca had tried and failed to do. The com­pa­ny raised $14.5 mil­lion in Se­ries A fund­ing. They al­so qui­et­ly launched Theia Bio­sciences around mol­e­cules that can hit the HTRA1 path­way and might be used to treat age-re­lat­ed mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion.

Over the next few years, Heifets said, they plan to launch more biotech sub­sidiaries, hope­ful­ly even­tu­al­ly putting mul­ti­ple drugs in the clin­ic. If the mar­kets keep their his­toric pace, he said, an IPO could al­so be in their for­tunes.

That would like­ly mean a hefty S-1 and an­oth­er round of ar­gu­ments over the role of AI in biotech, and what’s hype and what’s re­al­i­ty.

“I think that will de­pend on what the mar­kets are do­ing,” Heifets said. “There have been a num­ber of very suc­cess­ful IPOs re­cent­ly in the biotech sec­tor, so it’s a very in­ter­est­ing time.”

Mi­no­ryx and Sper­o­genix ink an ex­clu­sive li­cense agree­ment to de­vel­op and com­mer­cial­ize lerigli­ta­zone in Chi­na

September 23, 2020 – Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai (China) and Mataró, Barcelona (Spain)  

Minoryx will receive an upfront and milestone payments of up to $78 million, as well as double digit royalties on annual net sales 

Sperogenix will receive exclusive rights to develop and commercialize leriglitazone for the treatment of X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy (X-ALD), a rare life-threatening neurological condition

Vas Narasimhan (AP Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Still held down by clin­i­cal hold, No­var­tis' Zol­gens­ma falls fur­ther be­hind Bio­gen and Roche as FDA asks for a new piv­otal study

Last October, the FDA slowed down Novartis’ quest to extend its gene therapy to older spinal muscular atrophy patients by slapping a partial hold on intrathecal administration. Almost a year later, the hold is still there, and regulators are adding another hurdle required for regulatory submission: a new pivotal confirmatory study.

The new requirement — which departs significantly from Novartis’ prior expectations — will likely stretch the path to registration beyond 2021, when analysts were expecting a BLA submission. That could mean more time for Biogen to reap Spinraza revenues and Roche to ramp up sales of Evrysdi in the absence of a rival.

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FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn at the White House (AP Images)

Un­der fire, FDA to is­sue stricter guid­ance for Covid-19 vac­cine EUA this week — re­port

The FDA has been insisting for months that a Covid-19 vaccine had to be at least 50% effective – a measure of transparency meant to shore public trust in the agency and in a vaccine that had been brought forward at record speed and record political pressure. But now, with concerns of a Trump-driven authorization arriving before the election, the agency may be raising the bar.

The FDA is set to release new guidance that would raise safety and efficacy requirements for a vaccine EUA above earlier guidance and above the criteria used for convalescent plasma or hydroxychloroquine, The Washington Post reported. Experts say this significantly lowers the odds of an approval before the election on November 3, which Trump has promised despite vocal concerns from public health officials, and could help shore up public trust in the agency and any eventual vaccine.

Patrick Enright, Longitude co-founder (Longitude)

As its biotechs hit the pan­dem­ic ex­it, Lon­gi­tude rais­es $585M for new neu­ro, can­cer, ag­ing and or­phan-fo­cused fund

The years have been kind to Longitude Capital. This year, too.

A 2006 spinout of Pequot Capital, its founders started their new firm just four years before the parent company would go under amid insider trading allegations. Their first life sciences fund raised $325 million amid the financial crisis, they added a second for $385 million and then in, 2016, a third for $525 million. In the last few months, the pandemic biotech IPO boom netted several high-value exits from those funds, as Checkmate, Vaxcyte, Inozyme and Poseida all went public.

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PhII Alzheimer's fail­ure deals new blow to Roche, AC Im­mune — but the tau hy­poth­e­sis is far from dead

The leading anti-tau antibody has failed its first Phase II testing, casting a shadow on a popular target (just trailing amyloid beta) for Alzheimer’s disease.

Roche and AC Immune are quick to acknowledge disappointment in the topline readout, which suggested that semorinemab did not reduce cognitive decline among patients with early Alzheimer’s disease, who are either just starting to have symptoms or have mild manifestations.

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Covid-19 roundup: J&J be­gins piv­otal Phase III tri­al for vac­cine; Con­tro­ver­sial hu­man chal­lenge tri­als to be­gin in Lon­don — re­port

Johnson & Johnson announced it’s beginning a pivotal Phase III trial for its Covid-19 candidate, JNJ-78436735 — the first single-dose vaccine in this stage.

The Phase III trial, dubbed ENSEMBLE, will enroll 60,000 patients worldwide, making it the largest Phase III study of a Covid-19 vaccine to date. J&J said the candidate achieved positive interim results in a Phase I/IIa study, which will be published “imminently.” There’s a possibility that the first batches will be ready for potential emergency use in early 2021, according to the company.

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Isaac Veinbergs, Libra CEO

With $29M in Se­ries A, Boehringer-backed Li­bra looks to tack­le neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion through cel­lu­lar clean­ing

Can the natural process by which cells clean out toxic proteins be harnessed to create potential treatments for neurodegenerative disorders?

That’s the question Libra Therapeutics will be trying to answer, as the new biotech officially launched Wednesday morning with $29 million in Series A financing. The company has three preclinical programs at the ready, with its lead candidate targeting ALS and frontotemporal dementia. But CEO Isaac Veinbergs said he hopes to develop therapies for a wide range of diseases, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s.

Gene Wang, Immetas co-founder and CEO (file photo)

Im­metas Ther­a­peu­tics nabs $11M Se­ries A to nar­row their bis­pe­cif­ic work tar­get­ing in­flam­ma­tion in age-re­lat­ed dis­eases

How does a biotech celebrate its two-year anniversary? For Immetas Therapeutics, it’s with an $11 million Series A round and a game plan to fight age-related disease.

Co-founders Gene Wang and David Sinclair came together years ago around the idea that inflammation is the ultimate process driving age-related illnesses, including cancer. The duo launched Immetas in 2018 and packed the staff with industry experts. Wang, who says he’s always had an entrepreneurial spirit, has held lead roles at Novartis, GSK, Bristol Myers Squibb and Merck. He’s worked on blockbuster drugs like Humira, Gardasil, Varubi and Zolinza. And now, he’s channeling that spirit as CEO.

Scoop: ARCH’s Bob Nelsen is back­ing an mR­NA up­start that promis­es to up­end the en­tire man­u­fac­tur­ing side of the glob­al busi­ness

For the past 2 years, serial entrepreneur Igor Khandros relied on a small network of friends and close insiders to supply the first millions he needed to fund a secretive project to master a new approach to manufacturing mRNA therapies.

Right now, he says, he has a working “GMP-in-a-box” prototype for a new company he’s building — after launching 3 public companies — which plans to spread this contained, precise manufacturing tech around the world with a set of partners. He’s raised $60 million, recruited some prominent experts. And not coincidentally, he’s going semi-public with this just as a small group of pioneers appears to be on the threshold of ushering in the world’s first mRNA vaccines to fight a worldwide pandemic.

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