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Bristol Myers taps machine-learning biotech for help finding ALS drugs

Bristol Myers Squibb is betting a young biotech’s technology may lead to better treatments for certain neurological diseases, announcing Wednesday a five-year research pact with San Francisco-based Insitro.The companies will use Insitro’s technology to create disease models which, hopefully, give them a better understanding of how frontotemporal dementia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis progress. Insitro will then apply its machine-learning capabilities to that information in hopes of finding new drugs.The deal hands Insitro $50 million up front and dangles more than $2 billion in discovery, development, regulatory and commercial milestone payments. The biotech could also receive $20 million in near-term operational milestones, and royalty payments down the line should any of the drugs it discovers come to market.

Bristol Myers used to have a foothold in neuroscience. But, like many of its peers, the company backed away from brain drugs over the last two decades — both because of drug development setbacks, and because of promising advances in other areas of research, most notably cancer.

Insitro’s technology, though, could serve as a re-entry point. Innovative approaches to drug discovery and development may be especially useful for diseases like frontotemporal dementia and ALS, which are hard to treat and have few proven treatments.

“We believe that machine learning and data generated by novel experimental platforms offer the opportunity to rethink how we discover and design novel medicines,” said Richard Hargreaves, head of neuroscience research and early development at Bristol Myers, in a statement.

Per their deal, Bristol Myers has the option to pick “a number of targets” discovered by Insitro, and then will be responsible for advancing them through clinical studies, regulatory submissions and commercialization.

For Insitro, a biotech founded just two years ago, the agreement provides an immediate infusion of cash as well as a vote of confidence from another big industry name. Last year, Gilead inked a deal similar to Bristol Myers’, except that it focused on using Insitro’s technology to find new treatments for a prominent liver disease.

The company has already had a busy 2020, securing more than $140 million in Series B funding and wooing the outgoing Merck R&D chief Roger Perlmutter to join its board of directors. Earlier this month, Insitro acquired Haystack Sciences, another young biotech applying machine learning to drug discovery.

The Bristol Myers and Insitro pairing comes on the heels of a few other deals which center around treatments for frontotemporal dementia or ALS, and which were forged by big pharma companies looking to regain traction in the neurosciences.

In June, for example, Merck & Co. licensed two experimental drugs from Yumanity Therapeutics.

And back in early 2018, AbbVie teamed up with Voyager Therapeutics to research and develop gene therapies for neurological disorders. While Alzheimer’s was a main focus, AbbVie leadership said at the time that the collaboration could also lead to new treatments for conditions like progressive supranuclear palsy and frontotemporal dementia.