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.

Illustration: Assistant Editor Kathy Wong for Endpoints News

How Pur­due's $272M ad­dic­tion pay­out fund­ed a new home for its dis­card­ed non-opi­oid re­search

Don Kyle spent more than 20 years working for Purdue Pharma, right through the US opioid epidemic that led to the company’s rise and eventual infamy. But contrary to Purdue’s focus on OxyContin, Kyle was researching non-opioid painkillers — that is, until the company shelved his research.

As the company’s legal troubles mounted, Kyle found an unlikely way to reboot the project. In 2019, he took his work to an Oklahoma State University center that’s slated to receive more than two-thirds of the state’s $272 million settlement with Purdue over claims that the drugmaker’s behavior ignited the epidemic of opioid use and abuse.

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President Joe Biden at the State of the Union address with Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Patrick Semansky/AP Images)

The drug pric­ing pres­i­dent: Biden warns of ve­to for any IRA re­peal at­tempts

President Joe Biden made clear in his “finish the job” State of the Union address last night that one of those jobs to be finished is insulin prices.

Biden’s push again to tackle insulin prices, after Republicans rebuffed the idea last summer and just after Biden won Medicare drug price negotiations/caps via the Inflation Reduction Act, shows how heavily he’s leaning into this work.

Rupert Vessey, Bristol Myers Squibb head of research and early development

Up­dat­ed: R&D tur­bu­lence at Bris­tol My­ers now in­cludes the end of a $650M al­liance and the de­par­ture of a top re­search cham­pi­on

This morning biotech Dragonfly put out word that Bristol Myers Squibb has handed back all rights to its IL-12 clinical-stage drug after spending $650 million to advance it into the clinic.

The news arrives amid a turbulent R&D stage for the pharma giant, which late last week highlighted Rupert Vessey’s decision to depart this summer as head of early-stage R&D following a crucial three-year stretch after he jumped to Bristol Myers in the big Celgene buyout. During that time he struck a series of deals for Bristol Myers, and also shepherded a number of Celgene programs down the pipeline, playing a major role for a lineup of biotechs which depended on him to champion their drugs.

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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.

Bill Haney, Dragonfly CEO (Dave Pedley/Getty Images for SXSW)

Drag­on­fly chief: Bris­tol My­ers shouldn’t blame IL-12’s clin­i­cal per­for­mance for de­ci­sion to scrap the deal — eco­nom­ics played a key role

Bristol Myers Squibb says the IL-12 drug they were developing out of Dragonfly Therapeutics was scrubbed from the pipeline for a simple reason: It didn’t measure up on clinical performance.

But Bill Haney, the CEO of Dragonfly, is taking issue with that.

The early-stage drug, still in Phase I development, has passed muster with Bristol Myers’ general clinical expectations, advancing successfully while still in Phase I, he says.

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Utpal Koppikar, new Verily CFO

Ex­clu­sive: Ver­i­ly wel­comes Atara Bio­ther­a­peu­tics vet­er­an as new CFO

Verily, Alphabet’s life sciences outfit, has plucked a new CFO from the ranks of Atara Biotherapeutics, the company announced on Wednesday.

Utpal Koppikar joins Verily after a nearly five-year stint as CFO and senior VP at Atara, though his résumé also boasts roles at Gilead and Amgen.

The news follows a major reshuffling at Verily, including several senior departures earlier this year and a round of layoffs.

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Singer Nick Jonas is back at work for Dexcom, this time for its new G7 glucose monitor.

Dex­com's spokescelebri­ty Nick Jonas re­turns to Su­per Bowl in new glu­cose mon­i­tor com­mer­cial

Dexcom is going back to the Super Bowl with its pop singer and patient spokesperson Nick Jonas. Jonas takes center stage as the lone figure in the 30-second commercial showcasing Dexcom’s next-generation G7 continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) device.

Jonas’ sleight-of-hand tricks populate the commercial — he pinches his empty fingers together and pops them open to reveal the small CGM — even as he ends the ad, saying, “It’s not magic. It just feels that way.” Jonas then disappears in a puff of smoke.

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Richard Francis, newly-appointed Teva CEO (Novartis via Facebook)

New Te­va CEO Richard Fran­cis repri­or­i­tizes to 'get back to growth'

Six weeks into his new role at the helm of Teva Pharmaceutical, Richard Francis said it’s time to “get back to growth,” starting with a good look at the company’s priorities.

The chief executive has kicked off a strategic review, he announced during Teva’s quarterly call, which will continue over the next several months and produce results sometime in the middle of 2023. That means some pipeline cuts may be in store, he told Endpoints News, while declining to offer much more detail.

FDA Commissioner Robert Califf on Capitol Hill, Feb. 8, 2023 (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

FDA com­mis­sion­er floats ideas on how to bet­ter han­dle the pan­dem­ic

FDA Commissioner Rob Califf joined the heads of the CDC and NIH in the hot seat today before a key House subcommittee, explaining that there needs to be a much faster, more coordinated way to oversee vaccine safety, and that foreign biopharma inspections, halted for years due to the pandemic, are slowly ramping up again.

Califf, who stressed to the House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Health that the CDC also needs better data, made clear that the FDA’s ability to monitor the safety of vaccines “would also benefit greatly by a coordinated federal public health data reporting authority.”