The US now seems to be pinning all of its hopes on COVID-19 therapies and vaccines

Almost eight months after the White House first announced it would move from containment to mitigation efforts to stop the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic, the Administration is now pinning its hopes on vaccines to inoculate the population and therapies to treat the disease.

Months after announcing it would be working with technology giants Apple and Google on a contact tracing app (and nearly two months after Google and Apple rolled out their exposure notification features) and initiating wide spread testing efforts nationwide with the largest national pharmacies (which never received the coordinated support it needed),  the Administration appears to be giving up on a national effort to stop the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic.

In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said that the US is “not going to control the pandemic… We are gonna control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation.”

The admission is a final nail in the coffin for a federal response that could have involved a return to lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus, or national testing and contact tracing and other mitigation measures. Meadows statement comes as the US experiences a second peak in infection rates. There are now over 8.1 million cases and over 220,000 deaths since the first confirmed infection on US soil on January 20. 

Now, the focus is all on the vaccines, therapies and treatments being developed by large pharma companies and startups alike that are making their way through the approval processes of regulatory agencies around the world.

The vaccines in phase three clinical trials

There are currently 12 vaccines in large scale, late-stage clinical trials around the world, including ones from American companies Novavax, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna Therapeutics, and Pfizer who are recruiting tens of thousands of people in the US and UK to volunteer for testing.

In China, the state run pharmaceutical company Sinopharm has filed its application to China’s regulatory commission for the approval of a vaccine and hundreds of thousands of civilians have already been vaccinated under emergency use approvals from the Chinese government, according to a report in the New Yorker. Meanwhile the privately held Chinese pharmaceutical company, Sinovac, is moving forward with phase three trials for its own vaccine in Brazil, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Another private Chinese company, CanSino Biologics developed a vaccine that was already being distributed to members of the Chinese military in late July,

A collaboration in the U.K. between the University of Oxford and European pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca is also recruiting volunteers in Brazil, India, the United Kingdom, the US and South Africa. And, in Australia, the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute is trying to see whether a vaccine used to prevent tuberculosis could be used to vaccinate against the coronavirus.

Finally in Russia, the Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology in partnership with the state-run Russian Direct Investment Fund have claimed to have developed a vaccine that the country has registered as the first one on the market cleared for widespread use. Russia has not published any data from the clinical trials it claims to have conducted to prove the efficacy of the vaccine and the World Health Organization still considers the treatment to be in the first phase of development.

Therapies in phase three clinical trials

If vaccines can prevent against infection, a slew of companies are also working on ways to limit the severity of the disease should someone become infected with Sars-Cov-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The Milken Institute lists 41 different therapies that have made it through to phase three of their clinical trials (the last phase before approval for widespread delivery).

These therapies come in one of five primary categories: antibody therapies, antivirals, cell-based therapies, RNA-based treatments, and repurposing existing treatments that may be in pharmaceutical purgatory.

Antibody therapies use the body’s natural defense systems either taken from the blood of people who have recovered from an infection or manufactured in a lab to neutralize the spread of a virus or bacteria. Antivirals, by contrast, stop a virus from spreading by attacking the viruses’ ability to replicate. Cell-based therapies are designed to boost the immune system’s ability to fight pathogens like viruses or bacteria. Meanwhile RNA-based treatments are another method to stop the virus from replicating by blocking the construction of viral proteins. Finally, several companies are mining their libraries of old drug compounds to see if any might be candidates for COVID-19 treatments.

So far, only three therapeutics have been approved to treat COVID-19. In the U.K. and Japan dexamethasone has received approvals, while favilavir is being used in China, Italy and Russia; and — famously thanks to its use by the President — remdesivir has been approved in the United States, Japan and Australia.

The US is also using convalescent plasma to treat hospitalized patients under emergency use authorizations. And special cases, like the President’s, have had access to other experimental treatments like Regeneron’s cell therapy under emergency use authorizations.

And there are several US-based startups developing potential COVID-19 therapies in each of these areas.

Adaptive Biotechnologies, Cytovia Therapeutics, and SAB Biotherapeutics are all developing antibody treatments. Applied Therapeutics is using an understanding of existing compounds to develop treatments for specific conditions associated with COVID-19. Cellularity has a cell-therapy that could reduce a patient’s viral load by stimulating so-called natural killer cells to attack infected cells. Humanigen has developed a new drug that could reduce fatalities in high-risk COVID-19 patients with severe pneumonia. Meanwhile Partner Therapeutics is working on a drug that could improve lung function in COVID-19 patients — and potentially boost antibody production against the virus and restore damaged lung cells. Finally, Sarepta Therapeutics has been working with the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases to find ways for its RNA-based treatment to stop the spread of coronaviruses by attacking the ability for the virus to replicate.

Beyond therapies, startups are finding other ways to play a role in helping the nation address the COVID-19 epidemic.

“At this point the U.S. doesn’t have the best public health system, but at the same time we have best-in-class private companies who can sometimes operate a lot more efficiently than governments can,” Carbon Health chief executive Eran Bali told the audience at TechCrunch’s Disrupt 2020 conference. “We also just recently launched a program to help COVID-positive patients get back to health quickly, a rehabilitation program. Because as you know even if you survive it doesn’t mean your body was not affected, there are permanent effects.”

Indeed the drive for more effective at-home tests and remote treatments for consumers are arguably more important when the federal government refuses to make the prevention of viral spread a priority, because consumers may voluntarily lock down if the government won’t.

“This is an opportunity to take a technology that naturally is all about detecting viruses — that’s what CRISPR does in [its native environment] bacteria — and repurposing it to use it as a rapid diagnostic for coronavirus,” said the Nobel Prize-winning co-inventor of some foundational CRISPR gene-editing technology, Jennifer Doudna. “We’re finding in the laboratory that that means that you can get a signal faster, and you can also get a signal that is more directly correlated to the level of the virus.”

#astrazeneca, #covid-19, #jake-tapper, #jennifer-doudna, #johnson-johnson, #moderna-therapeutics, #pfizer, #pharmaceutical, #tc, #vaccine, #world-health-organization

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Spain’s Savana Medica raises $15 million to bring its AI toolkit turning clinical notes into care insights to the US

Savana, a machine learning-based service that turns clinical notes into structured patient information for physicians and pharmacists, has raised $15 million to take its technology from Spain to the U.S., the company said.

The investment was led by Cathay Innovation with participation from the Spanish investment firm Seaya Ventures, which led the company’s previous round, and new investors like MACSF, a French insurance provider for doctors. 

The company has already processed 400 million electronic medical records in English, Spanish, German, and French.

Founded in Madrid in 2014, the company is relocating to New York and is already working with the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies and over 100 healthcare facilities.

“Our mission is to predict the occurrence of disease at the patient level. This focuses our resources on discovering new ways of providing medical knowledge almost in real time — which is more urgent than ever in the context of the pandemic,” said Savana chief executive Jorge Tello. “Healthcare challenges are increasingly global, and we know that the application of AI across health data at scale is essential to accelerate health science.”

Company co-founder and chief medical officer, Dr. Ignacio Hernandez Medrano, also emphasized that while the company is collecting hundreds of millions of electronic records, it’s doing its best to keep that information private.

“One of our main value propositions is that the information remains controlled by the hospital, with privacy guaranteed by the de-identification of patient data before we process it,” he said. 

 

#articles, #artificial-intelligence, #disease, #electronic-health-records, #health, #machine-learning, #madrid, #new-york, #pharmaceutical, #pharmacy, #seaya-ventures, #spain, #tc, #united-states

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Ro makes the weight loss product Plenity commercially available to everyone in the U.S.

In what could be the first step in the development of a significant new line of business for the telemedicine prescription provider Ro, the company is finally announcing the general commercial availability of weight loss product, Plenity.

Developed by Gelesis, a biotech company that makes treatments for gastro-intestinal disorders, Plentiy is a weight loss treatment that uses citric acid and cellulose to create a non-toxic paste that makes people feel more full after they ingest it. Taken before meals, the pill becomes a substance that expands to take up about 25% of the stomach, so people eat less.

The product has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is available for a much broader segment of the population than other weight loss products. While most prescription medicines are intended for people who are obese, the Gelesis product is made for people who are overweight, too.

“That’s adults who have a BMI from 25 up to 40. That’s 150 million Americans,” according to Gelesis chief commercial and operating officer, David Pass.

Plenity received FDA approval last April and Gelesis started working with Ro soon after, according to Pass. The idea was to craft a strategy that could get the treatment, which is classified as a medical device and not a drug, in the hands of as many patients as quickly as possible.

For Ro, the agreement with Gelesis is a sign of potential things to come. The company is the exclusive online provider of the Plenity treatment and Ro founder Zachariah Reitano said that there’s an incredible potential to engage in more of these types of deals.

“We would love to be able to partner with pharmaceutical companies to decrease the cost of distribution,” said Reitano. “We were excited to build an exciting treatment solution for weight management. Our high-level mission is to be the patient’s first call.”

With the Gelesis partnership Ro can add another highly desirable treatment to its roster of therapies — and one that can be a contributing factor to increasing the severity of other conditions that the company already provides treatment for, Reitano said. 

“There are a few conditions that we currently treat that are exacerbated by a patient being overweight or obese. People who struggle with weight management will also experience ED. Obesity can lead to heart failure stroke, coronary heart disease, hypetension, depression,” Reitano said. “The breadth of the label is interesting. Only FDA approved with a BMI from 25 to 40. FDA approved treatment have been between 30 and 40. [It] makes the treatment more accessible to a wider variety of people.”

As the only online provider of the treatment, Ro has developed an onboarding process to ensure that the Plenity therapy isn’t abused by people who suffer from eating disorders.

“During our onboarding we not only ask questions to patients about their weight management. There’s a consecutive set of images that need to be uploaded and taken with the provider. That’s something we’ve taken a lot of time and energy to make sure about,” said Reitano. 

Like the other treatments Ro offers, Plenity is a cash pay prescription, because the weight loss treatments aren’t typically covered by insurance, he said.

The benefit of working with an online pharmacy like Ro to provide distribution for a new therapy was obvious to both startups.

“We turned this market on its head by putting the consumer at the heart of everything we do,” said Pass. The treatment costs $98 per month, compared to other therapies or branded medications that could be as much $300 and $350 per month, according to Pass.

One reason that Gelesis is able to reduce the price of the drug is that it won’t have to hire a massive sales force to pitch it. The company has Ro for that.

“Normally you have a pharmaceutical company that would have to hire a sales force and go door to door and it increases the cost of a new drug. [Ro] can make a new, innovative treatment available, like Plenity, available nationwide,” Reitano said. 

#depression, #drugs, #energy, #food-and-drug-administration, #health, #obesity, #officer, #online-pharmacy, #pharmaceutical, #ro, #tc, #telemedicine

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Ohio-based collaboration service for biotech and pharma research, Within3, raises $100 million

Within3, a collaboration and communication service for the biotech and pharma industries, has raised over $100 million in new financing, the company said.

The investment came from Insight Partners with participation from Silversmith Capital Partners.

Most of the top 20 pharmaceutical companies already use the Lakewood, Ohio-based company’s service to publish clinical studies, host advisory boards, and collaborate with researchers and other participants in the drug development process, according to a statement from the company.

Within3 said it would use the new funding to continue its product development and build additional capacity to support its growth.

“Investment opportunities in companies like Within3 don’t come around very often,” said Deven Parekh, Managing Director at Insight Partners, in a statement. “The company has seen explosive growth over the last 12 quarters and continues to break new records each month… At a time when collaboration, communication and cooperation is more critical than ever across the global life sciences ecosystem, we are excited to bring our strategic operations expertise to help Within3 scale.”

Parekh, and Insight Partners’ Managing Directors Adam Berger and Ross Devor, will join Within3’s board as a result of the financing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed an increasing number of companies in a variety of industries to pursue virtual collaboration tools and the pharmaceutical and biotech business is no different.

Indeed, given the regulatory requirements, it makes sense that a bespoke toolkit designed around the industry’s more robust needs would raise a heaping amount of cash.

Within3 boasts of users in over 150 countries.

“Global demand for our solution is surging at an unprecedented rate,” said Lance Hill, CEO of Within3, in a statement. “Life science companies are looking for virtual work solutions that exceed the level of engagement of traditional live interactions, meets all their compliance needs, and that will scale across the enterprise. They have found that solution with Within3.”

#ceo, #drug-development, #insight-partners, #pharmaceutical, #tc

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Building a white label tool for telemedicine services nabs OnCall Health $6 million

As medical providers across the world turn to digital delivery of consultations and services, OnCall Health a Toronto-based provider of back-end services for telemedicine is having a moment.

The company, which competes with services like Truepill to offer physicians, pharmacies and other potential point of care services a way to consult online, has grown exceptionally quickly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

OnCall Health’s services include the ability to schedule a video or text appointment with a physician, hosting those video consultations on its secured servers, and the integration of back end billing systems so physicians can get paid.

Services like OnCall and TruePill’s have increased exponentially since the advent of lockdown orders put in place to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. In a sign of how hungry investors are for these kinds of deals, Truepill just raised $75 million to expand its own health services offerings.

“Since COVID-19, telemedicine has shifted from a nice-to-have revenue source for primary care, mental health, and home care and chronic conditions to a need-to-have,” said Base10 Partners principal Chris Zeoli, who led the investment into OnCall.

Joining Base10 in its $6 million investment into OnCall were several existing investors from the company’s $2 million seed round, including Ripple Ventures, Panache Ventures, and Stout Street Capital.

The bulk of the company’s customers come from small and medium-sized physician’s practices, according to Zeoli. Roughly 500 of the company’s existing customers consist of offices with less than ten practicing doctors.

Capturing this long tail is important because it actually represents a huge proportion of healthcare providers.

“OnCall provides everything that healthcare brands like pharmaceutical companies, insurers, and direct to consumer digital health startups need to get into the space and launch their own virtual care programs, often for the first time,” said Nicholas Chepesiuk, founder and CEO of OnCall Health. “Meanwhile, we are well positioned to help conventional healthcare clinics and systems adopt virtual care technology in the context of their operational processes. In the past year we have been able to roll out our technology with two global insurance companies, several leading pharmaceutical brands, and many rapidly growing digital health startups.”

OnCall now has over 30 employees and supports 7,000 primary care, mental health, and paramedical service providers across North America.

#articles, #base10-partners, #ceo, #digital-health, #insurance, #north-america, #pharmaceutical, #physician, #tc, #telehealth, #telemedicine, #toronto

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PicnicHealth raises $25 million for its patient health record management service

PicnicHealth, the startup that’s looking to give patients a way to manage their care in one place and pharmaceutical companies access to patient records for real world data, has just raised $25 million in financing to grow its business.

Founded in 2016 by a former international development worker and Crohn’s Disease patient, Noga Leviner, PicnicHealth’s initial pitch was around giving patients the ability to manage and coordinate their own care. It’s something that Leviner, a person with a chronic condition, knows can be complicated.

“Being a patient in the healthcare system in the US sucks,” said Leviner. “You think someone is going to be in charge and then, as it turns out, nobody’s in charge and it’s up to you to keep everybody in the loop.”

The pitch from PicnicHealth is that patients can use the service to collect and manage their medical records and then share their medical history to contribute to research. The data, the company says, is de-identified and then made available to external researchers.

The service is free for patients who are involved in clinical studies, and anyone who isn’t participating in the study pays a fee for the records management service, according to Leviner.

So far, there are tens of thousands of patients using the PicnicHealth platform.

For Felicis Ventures managing director Sundeep Peechu, a new director on the PicnicHealth board following his firm’s lead investment into the company, the opportunity Leviner’s company presents is in putting the patient first when it comes to data management.

“It is probably the first patient data company that has patient consent,” Peechu said. “This is a unique healthcare data company, which is going to the patients and asking for their consent and using that data in an advantageous way.”

Other companies in the data management space for healthcare have focused on making sure that healthcare providers are all looped in to provide coordinated care, but they don’t bring those tools into patient’s hands, according to the company.

Those are businesses like TrueVault and Aptible, who focus on delivering secure information to medical personnel rather than to the patient.

The access that pharmaceutical companies get when they work with PicnicHealth means that they’re able to use deep data sets to create longitudinal studies of patients over time. That allows those companies to look for commonalities between patient cases that they otherwise wouldn’t have seen.

For patients, it means the difference between a potential early diagnosis that may enable physicians to initiate treatment before a disease manifests itself, Peechu said.

To date, PicnicHealth has raised nearly $40 million from investors including YCombinator, Amplify Partners and Felicis Ventures with participation from notable investors in a seed round that included: Social+Captial, Great Oaks, Slow Ventures, YC partner Paul Buchheit, Scott Marlette, Sam Lessin, Joe Greenstein, Rashmi Sinha, Jameson Hsu, Kenny Van Zant, Rishi Kacker, Ramji Srinivasan, Eric Evans and Stanford’s StartX Fund.

#amplify-partners, #articles, #director, #disease, #felicis-ventures, #health, #healthcare, #healthcare-data, #paul-buchheit, #pharmaceutical, #picnichealth, #sam-lessin, #scott-marlette, #slow-ventures, #tc, #united-states

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Osmind pitches clinical management and data analysis for mental health practices using psychedelics

Jimmy Qian and Lucia Huang, the co-founders of a new clinical practice management and data analysis platform for mental health providers focusing on cutting edge psychedelic treatments, met at Stanford University. 

The two both come from healthcare backgrounds. Huang, whose mother was a biomedical engineer, worked as an associate at Warburg Pincus focused on healthcare and worked at the startup Verge Genomics before heading to Stanford’s business school while Qian was in medical school at Stanford.

Both also went to high school in the Bay Area and were intimately familiar with the mental health crisis affecting the communities around Silicon Valley.

Qian worked on a few non-profits in the mental health space through his undergraduate years at Penn and then again in the Bay Area while he was at Stanford.

Osmind’s founders say the goal for their young startup is to help patients access innovative treatments to mental health by providing clinicians and pharmaceutical companies with software and services that will make the provision of care, and proof of the efficacy of treatment, more readily available.

There are 11 million Americans that are resistant to most mental health therapies, according to Huang and Qian. Those patients can cost the healthcare as much as $250 billion, they said. “Nobody has been able to help this patient population,” said Huang in an interview. “Pharma doesn’t develop drugs for them.”

Now graduating with Y Combinator’s latest cohort of companies, Osmind’s public benefit corporation intends to aggregate data from the sickest patient population and provide that data to drug developers for clinical trials and to help insurers route patients to the treatment providers that can benefit them the most, according to Qian.

The company, which launched its services two months ago, already has 30 practices using its software covering 3,000 patients.

“The beauty of all of this is that it’s a win-win for everyone,” said Huang. Providers get a software platform that streamlines administrative tasks and provides patient outreach and remote monitoring services. They also have a web portal that allows them to view patient progress.

Qian said its a service designed for physicians that are not necessarily technically savvy. It also provides a dataset that can be used to clinically validate some of these more experimental forms of therapy including psychedelics and ketamine treatment.

“We improve the care journey,” said Qian. “These are clinics that don’t have the manpower to do that.. You can’t call your patients every single day.”

#articles, #disability, #health, #health-care, #healthcare, #mental-health, #pennsylvania, #pharmaceutical, #primary-care, #software-platform, #stanford-university, #tc, #verge-genomics, #warburg-pincus, #web-portal, #y-combinator

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Hydroxychloroquine linked to increase in COVID-19 deaths, heart risks

A bottle and pills of Hydroxychloroquine. US President Donald Trump announced May 18 he has been taking hydroxychloroquine for almost two weeks as a preventative measure against COVID-19.

Enlarge / A bottle and pills of Hydroxychloroquine. US President Donald Trump announced May 18 he has been taking hydroxychloroquine for almost two weeks as a preventative measure against COVID-19. (credit: Getty | George Frey)

Two closely related anti-malarial drugs championed by President Donald Trump as promising treatments for COVID-19 appear to substantially increase the risks of death and heart complications in patients hospitalized from the disease.

That’s according to the largest study yet on the topic, which involved more than 96,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients on six continents. The peer-reviewed study, appearing Friday in The Lancet, was led by Mandeep Mehra, a professor of medicine at Harvard.

The drugs studied included chloroquine and its analogue hydroxychloroquine, which are used to treat autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as malaria. Early laboratory work suggested that they also have potent anti-viral properties. But small clinical studies looking into potential benefits for COVID-19 patients have largely provided mixed and inconclusive results to this point.

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#anti-viral, #chloroquine, #covid-19, #drug-develompment, #hydroxychloroquine, #infectious-disease, #pharmaceutical, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #trump

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Emerging from stealth, Octant is bringing the tools of synthetic biology to large scale drug discovery

Octant, a company backed by Andreessen Horowitz just now unveiling itself publicly to the world, is using the tools of synthetic biology to buck the latest trends in drug discovery.

As the pharmaceuticals industry turns its attention to precision medicine — the search for ever more tailored treatments for specific diseases using genetic engineering — Octant is using the same technologies to engage in drug discovery and diagnostics on a mass scale.

The company’s technology genetically engineers DNA to act as an identifier for the most common drug receptors inside the human genome. Basically, it’s creating QR codes that can flag and identify how different protein receptors in cells respond to chemicals. These are the biological sensors which help control everything from immune responses to the senses of sight and smell, the firing of neurons; even the release of hormones and communications between cells in the body are regulated.

“Our discovery platform was designed to map and measure the interconnected relationships between chemicals, multiple drug receptor pathways and diseases, enabling us to engineer multi-targeted drugs in a more rational way, across a wide spectrum of targets,” said Sri Kosuri, Octant’s co-founder and chief executive officer, in a statement.

Octant’s work is based on a technology first developed at the University of California Los Angeles by Kosuri and a team of researchers, which slashed the cost of making genetic sequences to $2 per gene from $50 to $100 per gene.

“Our method gives any lab that wants the power to build its own DNA sequences,” Kosuri said in a 2018 statement. “This is the first time that, without a million dollars, an average lab can make 10,000 genes from scratch.”

Joining Kosuri in launching Octant is Ramsey Homsany, a longtime friend of Kosuri’s, and a former executive at Google and Dropbox . Homsany happened to have a background in molecular biology from school, and when Kosuri would talk about the implications of the technology he developed, the two men knew they needed to for a company.

“We use these new tools to know which bar code is going with which construct or genetic variant or pathway that we’re working with [and] all of that fits into a single well,” said Kosuri. “What you can do on top of that is small molecule screening… we can do that with thousands of different wells at a time. So we can build these maps between chemicals and targets and pathways that are essential to drug development.”

Before coming to UCLA, Kosuri had a long history with companies developing products based on synthetic biology on both the coasts. Through some initial work that he’d done in the early days of the biofuel boom in 2007, Kosuri was connected with Flagship Ventures, and the imminent Harvard-based synthetic biologist George Church . He also served as a scientific advisor to Gen9, a company acquired by the multi-billion dollar synthetic biology powerhouse, Ginkgo Bioworks.

“Some of the most valuable drugs in history work on complex sets of drug targets, which is why Octant’s focus on polypharmacology is so compelling,” said Jason Kelly, the co-founder and CEO of Gingko Bioworks, and a member of the Octant board, in a statement. “Octant is engineering a lot of luck and cost out of the drug discovery equation with its novel platform and unique big data biology insights, which will drive the company’s internal development programs as well as potential partnerships.”

The new technology arrives at a unique moment in the industry where pharmaceutical companies are moving to target treatments for diseases that are tied to specific mutations, rather than look at treatments for more common disease problems, said Homsany.

“People are dropping common disease problems,” he said. “The biggest players are dropping these cases and it seems like that just didn’t make sense to us. So we thought about how would a company take these new technologies and apply them in a way that could solve some of this.”

One reason for the industry’s turn away from the big diseases that affect large swaths of the population is that new therapies are emerging to treat these conditions which don’t rely on drugs. While they wouldn’t get into specifics, Octant co-founders are pursuing treatments for what Kosuri said were conditions “in the metabolic space” and in the “neuropsychiatric space”.

Helping them pursue those targets, since Octant is very much a drug development company, is $20 million in financing from investors led by Andreessen Horowitz .

“Drug discovery remains a process of trial and error. Using its deep expertise in synthetic biology, the Octant team has engineered human cells that provide real-time, precise and complete readouts of the complex interactions and effects that drug molecules have within living cells,” said Jorge Conde, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, and member of the Octant board of directors. “By querying biology at this unprecedented scale, Octant has the potential to systematically create exhaustive maps of drug targets and corresponding, novel treatments for our most intractable diseases.”

#andreessen-horowitz, #articles, #biology, #biotechnology, #chemicals, #dna, #dna-sequencing, #dropbox, #drug-development, #drug-discovery, #emerging-technologies, #executive, #flagship-ventures, #general-partner, #genetic-engineering, #genetics, #george-church, #ginkgo-bioworks, #google, #harvard, #jason-kelly, #jorge-conde, #pharmaceutical, #synthetic-biology, #tc

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Owkin raises $25 million as it builds a secure network for healthcare analysis and research

Imagine a model of collaborative research and development among hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, universities and other research institutions where no one shared any actual data.

That’s the dream of the new New York-based startup Owkin, which has raised $25 million in fresh financing from investors, including Bpifrance Large Venture, Cathay Innovation and MACSF (the French Pension Fund for Clinicians), alongside previous investors GV, F-Prime Capital and Eight Roads

The company’s pitch is that data scientists, clinical doctors, academics and pharmaceutical companies can all log in to the virtual lab that Owkin calls the Owkin Studio.

In that virtual environment, all parties can access anonymized data sets and models exclusively to refine their own research and development and studies to ensure that the most cutting-edge insights into novel biomarkers, mechanisms of action and predictive models inform the work that all of the relevant parties are doing.

The ultimate goal, the company said, is to improve patient outcomes.

In its quest to get more companies and institutions to open up and share information — with the promise that the information can’t be extracted or used in a way that isn’t allowed by the owners of the data — Owkin is replicating work that other companies are pursuing in fields ranging from healthcare to financial services and beyond.

The Israeli company Qedit has developed similar technologies for the financial services industry, and Sympatic, a recent graduate from one of the recent batches of Techstars companies, is working on a similar technology for the healthcare industry.

Owkin makes money by enabling remote access to the data sets for pharmaceutical companies and licensing the models developed by universities to those companies. It’s a way for the company to entice researchers to join the platform and provide another revenue stream for research institutions who have seen their funding decline over the last 40 years.

We have a huge loop of academic universities that have access to the data and are developing algorithms and we share data,” said the company’s chief executive Dr. Thomas Clozel. “At the end what it helps is developing better drugs.”

Declines in federal funding for scientific research since the 1980s (Image courtesy of The Conversation)

The investment from Owkin’s new and existing investors takes the company to $55 million in total capital raised through the extension of its Series A round. In all, the round totaled $52 million, Clozet said.

“We are exactly where we need to be because it’s about privacy and privacy is more important than ever before,” said Clozet.

The COVID-19 epidemic has emphasized the need for closer collaboration among different corporations and research institutions, and that has also increased demand for the company’s technology. “It touches everything… We have access to the right data sets and centers to build the best models for COVID,” said Clozet. “We’re lucky to have the right traction before the COVID happens and we have the right research that has been done.”

In fact, the company has launched the Covid-19 Open AI Consortium (COAI), and is using its platform to advance collaborative research and accelerate clinical development of effective treatments for patients infected with the coronavirus, the company said. All of its findings will be shared with the global medical and scientific communities.

The initial focus on the research is on cardiovascular complications in COVID-19 patients in collaboration with CAPACITY, an international registry working with over 50 centers worldwide, the company said. Other areas of research will include patient outcomes and triage, and the prediction and characterization of immune response, according to Owkin.

“Since we first backed Owkin in 2017, we have been sharing its vision to apply AI to fighting one of the most dreadful diseases on earth: cancer,” said Jacky Abitbol, a partner at Cathay Innovation. “Owkin has risen to become a leader in digital health, we are proud to grow our investment in the company to fuel its ambition to pioneer AI for medical research, while preserving patient-privacy and data security.”

#artificial-intelligence, #cancer, #cathay-innovation, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #eight-roads, #f-prime-capital, #gv, #health, #healthcare, #new-york, #owkin, #pharmaceutical, #pharmacy, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #techstars

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Potential new treatment for COVID-19 uncovered by BenevolentAI enters trials

BenevolentAI, a startup which has raised $292 million to apply AI to create drugs faster, today says it has uncovered an already approved drug as a potential treatment for COVID-19, after it applied its AI platform and team to the problem. The revelation, which has now appeared in peer-reviewed scientific journals and has already entered clinical trials with a major pharmaceutical company, could offer a glimmer of hope to a world locked-down by the pandemic.

In February, BenevolentAI set up a specialist scientific team and launched an investigation using its drug discovery platform.

Baroness Joanna Shields, CEO of BenevolentAI, explained: “In response to the COVID-19 global health emergency, we turned our AI drug discovery and development platform toward understanding the body’s response to this novel infectious disease.”

Key to their approach was that “rather than focusing solely on drugs that could affect the virus directly, we explored ways to inhibit the cellular processes that the virus uses to infect human cells,” she said.

The idea was to identify approved drugs that could potentially stop the progression of COVID-19, inhibit the “cytokine storm” and reduce the inflammatory damage associated with this disease.

Diseases such as covid-19 and influenza can be fatal due to an overreaction of the body’s immune system called a cytokine storm.

Cytokines are small proteins released by many different cells in the body, including those of the immune system where they coordinate the body’s response against infection and trigger inflammation.

The body’s response to infection goes into overdrive when SARS-CoV-2 – the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic – enters the lungs, triggering an immune response, and attracting immune cells to the region to attack the virus. This resulting in localized inflammation. Some people experience worse symptoms than others at this point. But in some people, excessive or uncontrolled levels of cytokines are released which then activate more immune cells, resulting in ‘hyperinflammation’ which can seriously harm or even kill the person.

BenevolentAI’s team fed everything they knew about COVID-19, and the drugs that could inhibit the cellular processes that the virus uses, into their platform.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Peter Richardson, BenevolentAI’s VP of Pharmacology, explained how the discovery came about.

“Using the BenevolentAI Knowledge Graph there were two processes. One was finding the connections, and the regulators,” he said.

“It’s incredibly, incredibly difficult to hold in your head what’s irrelevant, all the time, without having the Knowledge Graph to show you the basic points. It’s really good at showing the basic interactions that are so important in understanding a biological process. Cellular tracking is an amazingly complicated thing to process.”

But, he said, the BenevolentAI platform handled the information with aplomb: “This took an hour for the platform to process.”

The next process was for the human team to find possible drugs to inhibit regulators. These were then fed into the Knowledge Graph. Richardson said this “took roughly half an hour to process.”

The result was that they identified baricitinib as a potential drug with both anti-viral and anti-cytokine properties, with 90 minutes of computing time, inside three days of additional human work.

Benevolent’s research findings were published in The Lancet in early February and again twice in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal. These proposed baricitinib as a potential treatment with both anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties for COVID-19 patients admitted to hospital prior to the development of critical lung damage.

By March, investigator-led studies began recruiting and treating infected patients with baricitinib. Today, Eli Lilly and the US National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) have announced that the drug will now begin it’s first large randomized trial in COVID-19 patients.

Baricitinib, sold as a prescription drug called Olumiant, is an already approved drug developed by Eli Lilly and Incyte for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

The randomized trial announced by Eli Lilly with NIAID will investigate the efficacy and safety of baricitinib as a potential treatment for patients with serious COVID-19 infections.

The study will begin in the US in late April with planned expansion to additional sites in Europe and Asia, with the results being expected within the next two months. This new trial joins a Canadian government randomised trial already underway assessing baricitinib as a potential treatment.

Commenting, Shields said: “We are pleased that Eli Lilly is progressing baricitinib to clinical testing for COVID-19 patients. While we wait for a vaccine to be developed, there is an immediate need for medicines that can prevent life-threatening respiratory and other serious complications of COVID-19 infections.”

Daniel Skovronsky, M.D., Ph.D., Lilly’s chief scientific officer and president of Lilly Research Laboratories said: “Lilly is moving at top speed and using all available resources to help fight this pandemic. Developing potential therapeutic medicines for COVID-19 is part of our vital and humanitarian mission.”

Professor Justin Stebbing from Imperial College, London, who has been collaborating on this work between Eli Lilly and BenevolentAI, also commented, saying: “There are no specific therapeutic agents for any coronavirus infections – we rely on quarantine, isolation and public health policies to prevent disease spread, and on supportive care measures for those who become ill. What we lack is a specific agent to treat the infected and, optimally, decrease viral shedding and subsequent transmission. The results of such trials will be central to clinical care as the outbreak continues and we anticipate that this treatment will improve mortality and reduce the pressure on hospitals and ICU’s worldwide. This research is notable for its incredible speed from computer to bench and bedside within a few months.”

Commenting, Richardson added: “If you turned the BenevolentAI 250-person team and turned all of them into 65-year old ex-pharmacology teachers, it would have taken probably a year to come up with this treatment. Instead, it took my three colleagues working so two hours a day, and myself working full time, three days to come up with this. We’ve gone from computer to bedside, as it were, in two months.”

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African genomics startup 54gene raises $15M led by Adjuvant Capital

Greater availability of African genomic data could lead to medical breakthroughs for the continent’s 1.2 billion people.

That’s the driving proposition of 54gene — a U.S. and Nigeria based startup — that collects African genetic code for use in health research and drug development.

The company has closed a $15 million Series A round, in part, to address a deficiency in these processes.

“As of the time we launched, less then 3% of all genome wide association studies globally had been conducted in Africa. There was a lack of data coming from Africans…and the diaspora,” 54gene founder and CEO Dr. Abasi Ene-Bong said.

“We are trying to address the gap that currently exists in precision medicine for people of the African continent,” he told TechCrunch on a call from Lagos.

New York based Adjuvant Capital led the round 54gene will now deploy toward that goal. Founded in 2019 by Ene-Bong, the company is headquartered in San Francisco with a biobank facility in Lagos that holds capacity for 60,000 samples. The startup has an engineering team and a proprietary platform to catalog and analyze the genetic data.

Image Credits: 54gene

54gene also has over 300 researchers, clinicians and geneticists across the continent and a research lab in Nigeria.

With the $15 million — which brings total VC to $19.5 million — the startup will expand its biobank capabilities to 200,000 samples, with a longer term goal to manage up to 500,000. 54gene is also boosting its lab capabilities. “With this funding we are about to expand that lab so we can process actual genetic data for tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people,” said Ene-Bong.

54gene plans to hire across the organization, from seeking a new VP of finance to adding additional scientists.

The company recruits research participants in Africa through studies at venues, such as hospitals, to take genetic samples via swab or blood tests. “Participants have to give us their informed consent before any testing,” explained Ene-Bong.

Adjuvant Capital Managing Partner Jenny Yip confirmed the VC firm’s lead on the $15 million investment. In addition to funds from Adjuvant — which itself is backed by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Novartis — 54gene is a 2019 Y Combinator alum and received follow on funding from the Silicon Valley accelerator.

The company has a longer time horizon to income, but the primary path to revenues is paid co-development of drugs and medicine working with pharmaceutical companies. “When the drug is in the market…and approved medicine [54gene] and the pharma company will share revenues,” said Ene-Bong.

When it comes to life-saving treatments in Africa, big pharma has faced criticism going back decades. The primary point of friction: the industry’s insistence on strict IP enforcement and high-margin prices for HIV-Aids related treatments on the continent. This has led to legal battles between pharma companies and the government of South Africa over that country allowing production of cheaper generic versions of those drugs.

On the value of Africa’s pharmaceutical industry, McKinsey and Company research estimates it at roughly $14 billion, and grossly under its potential — given an addressable market of some percentage of 1.2 billion people for new drugs.

For its part, 54gene’s CEO Abasi Ene-Bong is clear the company is a for-profit entity, but aims to balance money-making motives (and those of pharma partners) with advancing health in Africa.

The startup plans to exert leverage over the pricing process through its practice of co-developing drugs.

Dr Abasi Ene Obong, Image Credits: 54gene

“When you are a service provider to big pharma you can’t really make such a request. But when you are a development partner you co-own a significant stake of what’s being developed and have more of a say,” said Ene-Bong.

The startup is unable to disclose any current big pharma partners or which health issues in Africa it’s aiming genetic research toward tackling.

“I can say we will prioritize diseases that affect Africans disproportionately,” Ene-Bong said.

One obvious ailment in need of more effective prevention and treatment is malaria — with 92% of the world’s 219 million cases occurring in Africa, according to WHO data.

54gene has also turned its capabilities to COVID-19, which has spiked in Africa since mid-March. The company has re-positioned itself to do testing for the virus in Nigeria’s public health facilities and plans to offer coronavirus screening in its Lagos lab soon.

“We hope that when given approval, we can do more than 3000 tests a day,” said Ene-Bong

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Duke University uses vaporized hydrogen peroxide to clean N95 face masks for reuse

With shortages of N95 face masks persisting nationwide, healthcare facilities are scrambling to find ways to clean and treat the masks for reuse to protect doctors and nurses most at risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Duke University thinks it has found a solution using vaporized hydrogen peroxide to decontaminate the masks.

The process uses specialized equipment to vaporize hydrogen peroxide, which can then infuse all the layers of the mask to kill germs (including viruses) without degrading mask material.

“This is a decontamination technology and method we’ve used for years in our biocontainment laboratory,” said Scott Alderman, associate director of the Duke Regional Biocontainment Laboratory, in a statement.

The university said it has proven effective and will begin using the technology at all three of its hospitals, according to Matthew Stiegel, the director of the Occupational and Environmental Safety Office at Duke.

Ideally, the hospitals would be able to use fresh masks and not need to try to decontaminate their masks, but these are not ideal times.

Duke’s decision to use hydrogen peroxide to decontaminate N95 masks is based on published studies conducted in 2016, but the practice wasn’t widespread, because the industry wasn’t facing shortages. Those earlier studies also didn’t include fit-testing — or the resizing of masks for individual wearers — after cleaning. Duke has now done that efficacy testing in the real world, the university said.

“The ability to reuse the crucial N95 masks will boost the hospitals’ ability to protect front-line healthcare workers during this time of critical shortages of N95 masks,” said Cameron Wolfe, MD, associate professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist.

Monte Brown, MD, vice president at Duke University Health System, said the Duke team is working to spread the word about the technique, making the protocols widely available. He said several health systems and many pharmaceutical companies already have the needed equipment, which is currently used in different ways, and could ramp up operations to come to the aid of their local hospitals.

“We could stand up in front of our staff and state with confidence that we are using a proven decontamination method,” Brown said. “It has been a proven method for years. While this alone will not solve the problem, if we and others can reuse masks even once or twice, that would be a huge benefit given the current shortages.”

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