Developing new drugs is a challenging enterprise. It costs pharmaceutical companies an average of $2.7 billion to bring medicine to store shelves, according to the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, and as much as 90 percent of treatments in late-stage trials never come to market because they’re deemed ineffective or unsafe.
But Y Combinator graduate Verge Genomics believes that with the help of artificial intelligence, drug discovery can be dramatically accelerated. The Silicon Valley company today announced a $32 million funding round led by DFJ, WuXi AppTec’s Corporate Venture Fund, ALS Investment Fund, Agent Capital, and OS Fund.
“We’re looking to take the guesswork out of drug discovery,” Verge Genomics founder Alice Zhang told VentureBeat in a phone interview. “This funding will allow us to advance our most promising drug candidates toward the clinic while continuing to expand our proprietary datasets and therapeutic portfolio.”
The bulk of Verge Genomics’ research concerns Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and other neurodegenerative diseases that have historically proven difficult for pharmaceutical researchers to target. Roughly 400 clinical trials have tested experimental treatments for Alzheimer’s, for example, but the only approved drugs for Parkinson’s disease address its symptoms without halting its progression.
Verge Genomics uses machine learning models trained on patient and lab data that identify genes within disease networks, predicting compounds that might impede their activity. Company researchers test the compounds in animal models and nerves grown from stem cells and use those results to further refine the models.
Producing a drug that shows results in the lab takes about a year and a half, Zhang said.
Much of the training data is proprietary, generated by Verge Genomics’ in-house drug discovery labs and animal facilities. Thanks to partnerships with “a dozen” academic and government organizations, it boasts one of the largest and most complete databases of ALS and Parkinson’s genomic data, Zhang claims.
In May, Verge Genomics formed a partnership with the University of California San Diego and Berlin-based research institute VIB to sequence genes expressed in the brains of Parkinson’s patients. And last year, it announced an alliance with the Massachusetts General Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease, the Motor Neuron Center at Columbia University, the Kerk School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, and the University of Michigan Medical School to study ALS.
“Drug companies are looking at one gene at a time. That works for certain diseases, but more complex ones can be caused by hundreds of genes,” she said. “They [also] aren’t typically using human data until they get into clinical trials. We use that data from day one … [those are] some of the ways we’re decreasing the [drug] failure rate.”
Verge Genomics, which was founded in 2015, has raised $36 million to date.