Flagship Pioneering Unveils AI Driven Drug Discovery Start-Up
By Ruchi Jhonsa, Ph.D.
Imagine discovering a drug in the 19th century when all one had was a beaker and a chance discovery to rely on. A lot has changed since then with the emergence of powerful new biological techniques such as molecular modeling, combinatorial chemistry, and automated high-throughput screening combined with the expansion of computer technology that has made drug discovery faster and simpler.
While several companies are using AI to identify the right drug, there are few like Valo Health, Flagship’s latest biotech that plans to integrate AI, machine learning, cloud computing, and high-density longitudinal and human data to create a new drug discovery and development process intended to significantly reduce years of drug research and improve the likelihood of finding the right fit.
Valo, previously known as integral health, was founded and initially funded by Flagship Pioneering with nearly $100 million in 2019. On 25th September, Flagship launched Valo Health. The company boasts of its proprietary computational platform, Opal, that allows scientists to discover previously unsuspected associations between genetic markers and disease with whole patient data. Opal looks at a patient’s data holistically, which includes information about how different diseases and treatments affect people and how they look when they are healthy. The information is then used to predict which molecules will make the most useful drugs in a particular genetic setting.
“At the core of Valo’s approach is a recognition that human-centric data coupled with leading-edge compute can enable a transformation in how drugs are created, reducing cost and time while increasing confidence,” said Valo CEO David Berry, who is also a General Partner at Flagship Pioneering.” We founded Valo with the goal of redefining the drug development process so that we can treat some of the world’s most challenging illnesses more quickly and more effectively than ever before.”
In its early years, Valo expanded its drug discovery platform by acquiring Numerate and Forma Therapeutics, gaining assets like Forma’s early-stage discovery platform, IP portfolio, two early discovery labs, R&D libraries, and Numerate’s computational model. Combining the expertise of Numerate in using its computational models to screen drug candidates with Forma’s discovery platform, Valo created an efficient discovery pipeline that reduces time, reduces costs, and increases the chance of success. According to one statement, Numerate’s engineers, who are now part of Valo’s team, created a platform with over 30,000 models and over 70 trillion molecules that powered more than 25 drug programs.
AI has become popular with pharmaceutical companies trying to find the right drug in a small amount of time. Pfizer is using IBM Watson, a machine learning system for searching immuno-oncology drugs, Sanofi is working with a UK start-up Exscientia to use its AI platform for hunting metabolic-disease therapies, and Genentech is using an AI system from GNS healthcare in Cambridge to search for cancer treatments. However, none of these companies are approaching drug discovery the way Valo is, which certainly gives it an advantage over others. In the future, the company plans to extend its computational platform to other companies to make meaningful discoveries.
Indeed, AI has revolutionized the field of drug discovery. However, with no approved AI-developed drug in the market, people are skeptical about whether it would live up to its hype. However, the technology is relatively new and has just started churning out drugs. With that said, the world’s first drug developed using AI technologies is entering Phase 1 clinical trials for patients with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
The drug was created using Exscientia’s AI platform, which finished drug discovery in mere 12 months compared to traditional methods that take at least 5 years. Such technologies offer powerful solutions, especially at the time of urgent need, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is too early to say if a platform like Valo’s will bring change, it certainly elevates the drug discovery processes.
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