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A.I. Drug Discovery Company Gains $32M in Early Funds

Brain hemispheres graphic

(Pixabay)

16 July 2018. A company using genomic databases and artificial intelligence to discover new therapies for neurodegenerative diseases is raising $32 million in its first venture funding round. Verge Genomics, a three year-old enterprise in San Francisco says it combines neuroscience with machine learning and experimental biology to speed the discovery of drugs for disorders of the nervous system, beginning with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and Parkinson’s disease.

ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder where neurons or nerve cells controlling muscles in the body begin to waste away, and can no longer send or receive signals from the brain or spinal cord. As the nerve cells stop functioning, the muscles in the limbs, and later speech and breathing muscles, begin weakening and eventually stop functioning. Most people with the disease die of respiratory failure.

Parkinson’s disease occurs when the brain produces less of the substance dopamine, a neurotransmitter that sends signals from one neuron or nerve cell to another. As the level of dopamine lowers, people with Parkinson’s disease become less able to control their bodily movements and emotions. Symptoms include tremors, i.e. shaking, slowness and rigidity in movements, loss of facial expression, decreased ability to control blinking and swallowing, and in some cases, depression and anxiety.

Verge Genomics says it discovers new therapies by intensive analysis of databases with genomic data from neuroscience research partners in the academic world and government. The company’s web site lists Scrips Research Institute, Genomics England that hosts the 10,000 Genomes Project, Massachusetts General Hospital, Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, Center for Regenerative Therapies at Technical University Dresden in Germany, University of Michigan, and University of Southern California.

With these databases, says Verge’s co-founder and CEO Alice Zhang, the company uses machine learning algorithms to identify the most promising candidates for further development. But the company says it goes further to automate much of the drug discovery process to reduce many uncertainties contributing to the high costs, risks, and long timetables needed to develop new drugs. Only after this intensive process, do the company’s wet labs begin their drug development work. “By vertically integrating machine learning and drug development capabilities under one roof,” notes Zhang in a company statement, “we have been able to quickly identify dozens of promising new therapeutic opportunities for devastating diseases such as ALS and Parkinson’s disease.”

In a separate collaboration announced in May, labs at University of California in San Diego and VIB, a life sciences research institute in Belgium, are partnering with Verge to sequence the RNA in individual cells in brain tissue samples from people with Parkinson’s disease. Using Verge’s algorithm’s the partners aim to track changes in gene expression across different types of cells affected by Parkinson’s disease, compared to healthy brain tissue.

Verge Genomics raised $4 million at its founding in 2015. The new financing of $32 million, the company’s first venture funding round, is led by tech industry investor DFJ in Menlo Park, California that counts among its portfolio Twitter, Redfin, and Tesla and SpaceX founded by Elon Musk. Taking part in the round are WuXi AppTec’s Corporate Venture Fund, ALS Investment Fund, Agent Capital, and OS Fund. DFJ partner Emily Melton is joining the Verge Genomics board of directors.

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