AI firm Insitro signs Gilead as first pharma partner with NASH deal

Less than a year after coming out of stealth mode with a $65 million first-round last year, artificial intelligence specialist Insitro has already signed its first biopharma partner.

The South San Francisco company has enticed Gilead with its vision of using AI and machine learning to transform drug discovery, getting $15 million in upfront backing in a deal that could be worth over $1 billion.

The target? None other than non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), the fatty liver disease that is in the sights of dozens of biopharma companies, which see big commercial opportunities in the combination of millions of patients worldwide and no currently-approved therapies.

Insitro is fronted by Daphne Koller, a Stanford University AI professor who was previously chief computing officer at Alphabet’s Calico Labs, and launched with a pledge to make drug discovery faster, cheaper and more successful by interrogating large, high-quality data sets.

The three-year alliance with Gilead will apply the Insitro Human platform (ISH) to create experimental models of NASH – using machine learning, human genetics and functional genomics – that can be used to identify new drug targets, explore the factors behind disease progression, and predict which patients will respond to drugs the best.

Under the terms of the deal Gilead has the right to license up to five targets and will be responsible for the chemistry and development work to bring them forward. Each could attract up to $200 million in milestone payments, and Insitro is also in line for around $35 million in payments for meeting near-term operational objectives.

Insitro (the name comes from a merger of ‘in silico’ and ‘in vitro’) has the ambitious aim of making drug discovery and development more efficient, so that patients and healthcare payers don’t end up paying over the odds for new drugs in order to reimburse pharma companies for R&D programmes riddled with failed candidates.

It’s a compelling hypothesis, and one that now has the endorsement of a big biopharma partner to go along with a healthy crop of top-tier investors, including ARCH Venture Partners, Foresite Capital, a16z, GV (formerly Google Ventures) and Third Rock Ventures.

Gilead has recent experience of the hit-and-miss nature of R&D in NASH, having reported a late-stage failure for its ASK1 inhibitor selonsertib in patients with NASH and compensated cirrhosis. It is still however hopeful of showing a benefit for the drug in patients with less advanced NASH.

The latest deal with Insitro further pads Gilead’s NASH pipeline which along with selonsertib also includes FXR agonist cilofexor and ACC inhibitor firsocostat in mid-stage testing.

Gilead’s head of R&D John McHutchison  said that the company is “excited about the opportunity to partner with Insitro to tackle the scientific challenges associated with this complex disease”.

He added: “Through this collaboration we will utilise deep learning to explore the scientific underpinnings of the biology and clinical spectrum of NASH.”

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