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Signaling a pattern for the year ahead, two major drug companies are advancing their implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) in drug discovery though research agreements with AI specialist firms.
Exscientia, an AI developer with a drug pipeline of its own, has signed an agreement with Sanofi in which the French drug maker will access Exscientia’s AI platform in joint research on 15 small-molecule drug candidates for oncology and immunology indications.
Generate Biomedicines, a 3-year-old specialist in AI for biological engineering, announced a similar deal with Amgen in which the partners will collaborate on the discovery and development of protein-based drugs for five targets in several therapeutic areas.
Exscientia will receive $100 million in up-front payments from Sanofi. Generate will get $50 million from Amgen. Both deals entail potential milestone and royalty payments as well. Amgen will have the option to nominate up to five additional programs and has committed to participating in a future financing round for Generate.
Under its agreement with Sanofi, Exscientia will lead efforts in drug target discovery as well as drug design and optimization up to the nomination of drug candidates. Sanofi will be in charge of preclinical and clinical development, manufacturing, and commercialization.
Exscientia CEO Andrew Hopkins says the contract marks a significant increase in his firm’s engagement with Sanofi. The two companies have partnered on the design of bispecific small molecules since 2016, and in 2019 Sanofi licensed an Exscientia drug candidate that addresses two inflammation and immunology targets. The new contract will include drug target discovery as well as design using Exscientia’s AI-based personalized medicine platform, which incorporates human tissue samples into early target and drug discovery.
Exscientia has partnerships with several other drug firms, including Bristol Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, and Roche, as well as with the Bill and Melina Gates Foundation. The new contract with Sanofi is Exscientia’s largest to date.
Under its contract with Amgen, Generate will take a lead role in early discovery, generating novel protein sequences computationally and building and testing them in its laboratory. Amgen will take the lead in preclinical and clinical development and manufacturing.
Amgen, which in recent years has supplemented biologics discovery with emerging sequence-based drug design technologies, sees AI as means of accelerating the discovery process through the rapid generation of large volumes of data, says Raymond J. Deshaies, senior vice president of global research.
“I’m looking at this as a part of a continuum,” Deshaies says, in which Generate’s AI algorithms will optimize sequencing and high-throughput engines already in place. “That allows us to create huge data sets, and it is those huge data sets that are instrumental to feeding the AI engine of the future.”
Industry watchers say major pharmaceutical companies are likely to make significant progress in incorporating AI in discovery research in the months ahead, relying heavily on partnerships with AI platform development firms. Research heads at Sanofi and Generate indicate in press statements that the technology and timing is right.
“Application of sophisticated AI and machine learning methods will not only shorten drug discovery timelines, but will also help to design higher quality and better targeted medicines for patients,” says Frank Nestle, chief scientific officer at Sanofi.
“We are now at a scientific hinge point, where computational approaches can advance our knowledge of biology and further drive our ability to design the right molecule for some of the most challenging targets,” says David M. Reese, executive vice president of R&D at Amgen.
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