AI, Startups

The big revamp at GlaxoSmithKline R&D includes a new collaboration on AI

A few weeks ago, when GlaxoSmithKline said it had recruited Pfizer vet Tony Wood to run the platform tech and science group in the pharma R&D operation, the company noted that he was taking the place of John Baldoni, a senior research exec who was launching a new effort to use artificial intelligence technology to ramp up a new approach to drug identification and development.

John Baldoni

This morning, we learned that Baldoni has decided to team with Insilico Medicine out of Baltimore, which also recently scored a joint venture with an upstart anti-aging biotech — Juvenescence — being launched by UK billionaire Jim Mellon and some high-profile biotech colleagues he’s been working with. The deal comes just a few weeks after Baldoni struck a pact with Exscientia, another AI company based in the UK.

“The GSK deal is the culmination of 18 months or more of work,” Insilico CEO Alex Zhavoronkov tells me.

Alex Zhavoronkov

It started out as a series of pilot projects within the pharma giant, he adds, as GSK explored how AI and machine learning could be used to carve shorter paths through the R&D maze, trying to push new and better drugs through the clinic and in front of regulators — something that GSK has not had much success with over the past decade.

There’s a lot that Zhavoronkov can’t talk about. They’re focusing on one of the most important disease areas with no cure in sight (not cancer), which is age related, a specialty of Insilico. That’s about it for now.

There’s also no word on the numbers involved in this deal, though Zhavoronkov frankly tells me that it starts with a small upfront with a “huge” back end, pretty standard in discovery deals these days.

AI in pharma R&D has managed to go from hope to hype and beyond in far less time than it takes to develop a new drug. There’s been a mad scramble to line up with the most prominent top-15 players, like GSK, which will now start to seriously test just how effective this tech can be in generating molecules for the R&D group.

The AI move comes at a time that new GSK CEO Emma Walmsley is working hard to shake things up at the pharma giant, which has had a lackluster record in identifying and moving along blockbuster drugs as its Advair franchise teeters on the brink of major league generic competition. That revamp includes a new focus on oncology and immuno-inflammatory drugs, kicking out 30 programs and shuttering whatever remained of the old neurosciences R&D group in Shanghai.

It’s time for some new, faster technologies, and that switchup at GSK is playing in Insilico’s favor, along with the growing trend toward developing new drugs that are designed to prolong healthy life spans for a rapidly aging society.


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