Jeffrey Lu, Engine Biosciences CEO

Tim Lu is ready to take his AI-fo­cused biotech to the next lev­el with first big fundrais­ing round

Tim Lu

Fa­mous MIT re­searcher Tim Lu took the wraps off a transpa­cif­ic biotech he’d launched a lit­tle over three years ago with his broth­er Jef­frey with a $10 mil­lion seed round, at­tempt­ing to use ma­chine learn­ing to de­vel­op new small mol­e­cule drugs. Now, the com­pa­ny is ready to take its next step.

En­gine Bio­sciences un­veiled its first ma­jor VC round with a $43 mil­lion Se­ries A, the biotech an­nounced Wednes­day morn­ing. Over the last three years, the com­pa­ny has worked to es­tab­lish its plat­form, Jef­frey Lu — who is En­gine’s CEO — told End­points News, and re­cent­ly nom­i­nat­ed two tar­gets for their in­ter­nal pipeline.

With the new funds, Lu ex­pects En­gine has enough run­way to get its lead pro­gram in­to its first clin­i­cal tri­al by 2023.

Back in 2018, the Lu broth­ers were part of a wave of biotechs that set the field abuzz, with their ef­forts to tie AI and ma­chine learn­ing to hands-on drug de­vel­op­ment work. It’s an idea that’s gained trac­tion over the last sev­er­al years, as more com­pa­nies and bio­phar­mas aim to speed up the dis­cov­ery process and cut down on R&D costs.

James Collins

Their team al­so in­clud­ed a host of big names in the field, in­clud­ing Tim Lu’s MIT col­league Jim Collins, Mayo Clin­ic pro­fes­sor Hu Li and UC-San Diego re­searcher Prashant Mali.

En­gine’s ap­proach com­bines two dif­fer­ent sys­tems in­to one plat­form. The first al­lows the com­pa­ny to test how hun­dreds of thou­sands of pos­si­ble ge­net­ic com­bi­na­tions can be af­fect­ed by ed­its or changes, and the sec­ond feeds those ex­per­i­ments in­to an al­go­rithm that can pre­dict how those changes might be im­pli­cat­ed by new drugs.

Jef­frey Lu said re­searchers can start with ei­ther sys­tem, but En­gine it­self be­gan on the ex­per­i­ment side.

“It’s kind of chick­en and egg for what comes first,” Lu told End­points. “[The sys­tem] al­lows us to use things like CRISPR for mul­ti­ple ed­its in a sin­gle cell, knock­ing down or switch­ing ex­pres­sion two or three at a time, and see­ing what hap­pens to a cell.”

Af­ter three years of buildup, how­ev­er, Lu added that the AI al­go­rithm is ad­vanced enough to func­tion as the start­ing point as well, mak­ing pre­dic­tions about how edit­ed cells might re­act to drugs. That work can then be checked by re­searchers, us­ing the plat­form to con­duct its ex­per­i­ments.

En­gine has tak­en ad­van­tage of CRISPR thus far to con­duct some of its edit­ing ex­per­i­ments, but the plat­form is adapt­able to oth­er meth­ods such as mi­croR­NA and gene ex­pres­sion, Lu said. It’s al­lowed them to prep its first pipeline can­di­date where they’re go­ing af­ter liv­er, ovar­i­an and col­orec­tal can­cer all at once.

The biotech’s plat­form helped dis­cov­er a ge­net­ic mu­ta­tion linked to all three of these can­cer types, though Jef­frey Lu is keep­ing his cards close to the vest here. He de­clined to re­veal both the tar­get and the bio­mark­er for this small mol­e­cule pro­gram, not­ing on­ly that IND stud­ies will like­ly be­gin in 2022 with the goal for a 2023 clin­i­cal tri­al.

En­gine’s sec­ond pro­gram, which is a bit fur­ther be­hind the lead, is aim­ing for triple neg­a­tive breast can­cer at first.

Wednes­day’s round was led by Po­laris Part­ners, joined by a promi­nent undis­closed Sin­ga­pore firm and In­vus. Ex­ist­ing in­vestors al­so par­tic­i­pat­ed, in­clud­ing 6 Di­men­sions Cap­i­tal, WuXi AppTec, DHVC, ED­BI, Baidu Ven­tures, Vec­tr Ven­tures, Good­man Cap­i­tal, WI Harp­er, and Nest.Bio.

Health­care Dis­par­i­ties and Sick­le Cell Dis­ease

In the complicated U.S. healthcare system, navigating a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease can be remarkably challenging for patients and caregivers. When that illness is classified as a rare disease, those challenges can become even more acute. And when that rare disease occurs in a population that experiences health disparities, such as people with sickle cell disease (SCD) who are primarily Black and Latino, challenges can become almost insurmountable.

Jacob Van Naarden (Eli Lilly)

Ex­clu­sives: Eli Lil­ly out to crash the megablock­buster PD-(L)1 par­ty with 'dis­rup­tive' pric­ing; re­veals can­cer biotech buy­out

It’s taken 7 years, but Eli Lilly is promising to finally start hammering the small and affluent PD-(L)1 club with a “disruptive” pricing strategy for their checkpoint therapy allied with China’s Innovent.

Lilly in-licensed global rights to sintilimab a year ago, building on the China alliance they have with Innovent. That cost the pharma giant $200 million in cash upfront, which they plan to capitalize on now with a long-awaited plan to bust up the high-price market in lung cancer and other cancers that have created a market worth tens of billions of dollars.

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FDA hands ac­cel­er­at­ed nod to Seagen, Gen­mab's so­lo ADC in cer­vi­cal can­cer, but com­bo stud­ies look even more promis­ing

Biopharma’s resident antibody-drug conjugate expert Seagen has scored a clutch of oncology approvals in recent years, finding gold in what are known as “third-gen” ADCs. Now, another of their partnered conjugates is ready for prime time.

The FDA on Monday handed an accelerated approval to Seagen and Genmab’s Tivdak (tisotumab vedotin-tftv, or “TV”) in second-line patients with recurrent or metastatic cervical cancer who previously progressed after chemotherapy rather than PD-(L)1 systemic therapy, the companies said in a release.

David Meek, new Mirati CEO (Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Fresh off Fer­Gene's melt­down, David Meek takes over at Mi­rati with lead KRAS drug rac­ing to an ap­proval

In the insular world of biotech, a spectacular failure can sometimes stay on any executive’s record for a long time. But for David Meek, the man at the helm of FerGene’s recent implosion, two questionable exits made way for what could be an excellent rebound.

Meek, most recently FerGene’s CEO and a past head at Ipsen, has become CEO at Mirati Therapeutics, taking the reins from founding CEO Charles Baum, who will step over into the role of president and head of R&D, according to a release.

Rafaèle Tordjman (Jeito Capital)

Con­ti­nu­ity and di­ver­si­ty: Rafaèle Tord­j­man's women-led VC firm tops out first fund at $630M

For a first-time fund, Jeito Capital talks a lot about continuity.

Rafaèle Tordjman had spotlighted that concept ever since she started building the firm in 2018, promising to go the extra mile(s) with biotech entrepreneurs while pushing them to reach patients faster.

Coincidentally, the lack of continuity was one of the sore spots listed in a report about the European healthcare sector published that same year by the European Investment Bank — whose fund is one of the LPs, alongside the American pension fund Teacher Retirement System of Texas and Singapore’s Temasek, to help Jeito close its first fund at $630 million (€534 million). As previously reported, Sanofi had chimed in €50 million, marking its first investment in a French life sciences fund.

Dave Lennon, former president of Novartis Gene Therapies

Zol­gens­ma patent spat brews be­tween No­var­tis and Re­genxbio as top No­var­tis gene ther­a­py ex­ec de­parts

Regenxbio, a small licensor of gene therapy viral vectors spun out from the University of Pennsylvania, is now finding itself in the middle of some major league patent fights.

In addition to a patent suit with Sarepta Therapeutics from last September, Novartis, is now trying to push its smaller partner out of the way. The Swiss biopharma licensed Regenxbio’s AAV9 vector for its $2.1 million spinal muscular atrophy therapy Zolgensma.

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Time for round 2: Il­lu­mi­na-backed VC snags $325M for its next fund

Illumina Ventures closed off its second investment fund with a total commitment of $325 million, offering fresh fuel to back a slate of startups that have already included a smorgasbord of companies, covering everything from diagnostics to biotech drug development and genomics.

Fund II brings the total investment under Illumina Ventures’ oversight to $560 million, which has been focused on early-stage companies. And it has a transatlantic portfolio that includes SQZ, Twist and Encoded Therapeutics.

Volker Wagner (L) and Jeff Legos

As Bay­er, No­var­tis stack up their ra­dio­phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal da­ta at #ES­MO21, a key de­bate takes shape

Ten years ago, a small Norwegian biotech by the name of Algeta showed up at ESMO — then the European Multidisciplinary Cancer Conference 2011 — and declared that its Bayer-partnered targeted radionuclide therapy, radium-223 chloride, boosted the overall survival of castration-resistant prostate cancer patients with symptomatic bone metastases.

In a Phase III study dubbed ALSYMPCA, patients who were treated with radium-223 chloride lived a median of 14 months compared to 11.2 months. The FDA would stamp an approval on it based on those data two years later, after Bayer snapped up Algeta and christened the drug Xofigo.

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Raju Mohan, Ventyx Biosciences CEO

Months af­ter a mam­moth raise, Ven­tyx Bio­sciences dips back in­to ven­ture well

Several months after emerging from what CEO Raju Mohan called “quiet mode” with a mammoth $114 million raise, Ventyx Biosciences is now making its plans for the clinic loud and clear.

The California-based immune modulation player kicked the week off with a $51 million Series B, while also naming some key hires ahead of its big clinical push.

The CMO slot is going to Jörn Drappa, former CMO at Viela Bio before it was bought out by Horizon Therapeutics earlier this year. The AstraZeneca vet stayed on at Horizon for a while as executive VP of R&D before making the jump to Ventyx.