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Biotechs Partner on Lower Cost AI-Designed Drugs

Artificial intelligence graphic

(Gerd Altmann, Pixabay)

24 June 2021. Two biotechnology companies are collaborating on discovery and development of new drugs designed with artificial intelligence, at lower cost to patients. Financial terms and timelines of the agreement between EQRx in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Exscientia in Oxford, U.K. were not disclosed.

EQRx aims to re-engineer the processes of bringing drugs to market, as well as getting treatments to patients, which reduce the time needed to produce drugs, but also their prices. In a company blog post in July 2020, EQRx’s chairman Alexis Borisy and president Melani Nallicheri, also the company’s co-founders, say the high cost of pharmaceuticals is now a growing unmet need in the marketplace. Borisy and Nallicheri cite data showing when out-of-pocket costs for drugs reach or exceed $250, some 70 percent of patients discontinue their treatment.

The authors say EQRx uses a fast-follow model, where their product candidates work similarly to existing drugs, but with sufficiently different chemistries to allow for their own intellectual property. Plus, the company aims to shorten the supply chain, selling their drugs directly to larger health care providers. Using this model, EQRx acquires current late-stage drug candidates for further development and commercialization, and now has four cancer therapies in its pipeline. In May, the company reported positive findings from late-stage clinical trials of sugemalimab and aumolertinib for treating non-small cell lung cancer.

Start with a smaller, more precise pool of compounds

Exscientia’s platform combines machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence, and synthetic drug design to identify drug molecules with the best likelihood of success against specified targets. The company says it assesses candidate compounds for their potency and chemical activity in the body, with the findings from previous evaluations fed back into the program to identify the optimum design characteristics for new drugs.

In a 2018 conference paper, the company said its technology can reduce the time needed to discover new preclinical small molecule, or low molecular weight, drug candidates by 75 percent. Exscientia’s Centaur Biologist first identifies more precise targets with machine learning, then designs new drugs with its Centaur Chemist process. Where most industry drug discovery efforts, says the company, usually start with a pool of 2,500 compounds, Exscientia’s discovery process first identifies some 500 compounds. And while the typical timeline for drug discovery from start to preclinical candidate is about five years, the company says it can reduce that amount of time to about 1.5 years.

The agreement between the two companies calls for Exscientia to lead drug discovery on new small molecule drugs, responsible for preclinical development up to filing for an investigational new drug application — a request to begin clinical trials. EQRx is responsible for subsequent clinical trials, regulatory, and commercialization efforts. The partnership is expected to produce new cancer and immunology therapies, but address other disease areas as well.

“We are impatient for patients,” says Exscientia CEO Andrew Hopkins in a statement. “EQRx and Exscientia are partners who are equally focused on re-engineering the way we create and distribute drugs for better outcomes for more patients.” EQRx’s Borisy adds, “We believe that our aligned focus on efficiency and quality sets a truly unique course to bring the next generation of innovative medicines to patients faster and at a fraction of the cost.”

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