LONDON – Exscientia Ltd. has closed a $60 million series C funding, attracting Novo Holdings as new investor to lead the round, which will enable the artificial intelligence (AI) specialist to progress its first in-house program to the clinic before the end of 2020.

In addition to moving into clinical development and starting more drug discovery projects, the Oxford, U.K.-based company plans to accelerate its international footprint, including the expansion of its U.S. base.

The new investment underlines the extent to which applying AI to drug discovery has become mainstream, said Andrew Hopkins, CEO and founder of Exscientia.

In the past year, milestones have been triggered in collaborations with Sanofi SA and Glaxosmithkline plc, new pharma collaborations have been agreed and the first drug designed by Exscientia for a pharma partner has entered clinical trials.

That compound, DSP-1181, a 5-HT1A receptor agonist discovered in collaboration with Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma Co. Ltd., began development in the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder in January, less than 12 months after the project began.

That contrasts with a typical average of 4.5 years from discovery to the clinic using conventional techniques, according to Exscientia.

For Sanofi, Exscientia has designed an orally available small molecule that is capable of simultaneously engaging two separate targets involved in inflammation and fibrosis. Where normally two separate molecules with a linker would be required, the Sanofi compound meets the binding requirements of the two targets through an integrate pharmacophore.

“We’ve proven the hypothesis that AI can be used to generate high quality drugs. Now we want to capture more of the value,” Hopkins said. “The series C allows us to think about how to scale and build the company in terms of taking [programs] to the clinic,” he told BioWorld.

The lead program will be in immuno-oncology, but for now the indication is not being disclosed.

Existing investors Evotec AG, Bristol Myers Squibb Inc. and GT Healthcare Capital of Hong Kong, which between them put $26 million into the series B round in January 2019, all followed on.

Hopkins said the series B was the springboard to move from being solely an in silico company to carrying out its own lab research. “One-third of the company are now biologists. The importance of that for us is to really generate our own assays, to understand targets, so we can control quality,” Hopkins said.

That is underpinning a rapid design, synthesize and assay cycle, with the results feeding back to hone Exscientia’s drug discovery algorithms.

“We’re now a wet biology company as well as an in silico one. That is important, to be fully in control, and to drive the algorithm,” Hopkins said.

In addition, adding biology expertise allows Exscientia to apply AI to target identification and validation, in addition to using it to design molecules.

Exscientia also is able to draw on public sources in biobanks and genomics databases. “We can integrate and learn from the huge wealth of public data. There are very interesting deep learning approaches to understanding targets,” said Hopkins.

Many biotechs have had lab work interrupted by lockdown measures brought in to control the spread of COVID-19. Hopkins said Exscientia has been able to introduce social distancing and shift patterns and to keep research going. As a result, operations have not been affected by the pandemic. With the series C, the company “is now looking beyond the current situation,” Hopkins said.

However, in common with many biotechs, Exscientia is contributing to the effort to find treatments for COVID-19 infections, working with the U.K. national synchrotron, Diamond Light Source and Scripps Research of La Jolla, Calif., to identify potential antiviral drugs.

The company is screening a library of approved drugs and compounds that have passed preclinical and clinical safety studies, against three SARS-CoV-2 targets. The collection of compounds, which has been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has been shipped from California to the U.K. for testing.

After searching for drugs that could be repurposed and immediately moved forward in clinical development, the synchrotron will be used to investigate how any hits bind to the targets, providing feedstock for Exscientia algorithms, and the basis for improved antiviral drug designs.

Hopkins said he is hoping to publish some initial results in the near future.

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