AZ's Alexion inks wide-ranging AI agreement with Verge


AstraZeneca has made a sizeable play in applying artificial intelligence to drug discovery in its rare disease unit Alexion, partnering with Verge Genomics in a deal that could be worth around $840 million.

That includes $42 million upfront in cash and equity to get access to Verge's Converge platform, which uses AI to seek out new drug targets from patient tissue data. AZ and Verge plan to work together over four years to find new drug targets for as-yet unspecified rare neurodegenerative and neuromuscular diseases.

Verge will apply the 'full-stack' Converge platform to tease out targets from a proprietary library of genomic datasets sampled directly from human tissue. Once those targets are identified, Alexion will have the option to license them as the basis for drug discovery and development programmes.

The deal is another example of pharma's adoption of AI as a tool to accelerate the discovery and development of new medicines, with GlobalData research suggesting that the approach can dramatically reduce the exploratory research phase from four to five years to less than 12 months.

AZ is the second big pharma group to tap into Verge's approach to deploying AI for target discovery after Eli Lilly, which paid $25 million upfront in 2021 to kick off a $694 million collaboration focused on neurodegenerative disorder amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

ALS is also the lead target of Verge's own in-house development programme, headed by VRG50635, an orally active drug targeting 1-phosphatidylinositol 3-phosphate 5-kinase (PIKfyve) that recently cleared a phase 1 trial. It is intended as a therapy for patients with all forms of the devastating motor neuron disorder.

VRG50635 is the only PIKfyve inhibitor in clinical development to be selected specifically for treating central nervous system disease, according to Verge, and has shown efficacy in multiple preclinical studies in ALS-relevant models of motor neuron degeneration.

The biotech, meanwhile, is also working with the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN) in the UK to find and validate new targets for Parkinson's disease medicines.

Alexion's head of R&D, Seng Cheng, said that using Verge's AI-enabled platform in combination with data from patient tissue samples has the potential to help researchers "more efficiently identify and validate therapeutic targets for rare diseases."

He added that the collaboration "will contribute to Alexion's science-led innovation and may help accelerate our efforts to transform the discovery and development of new medicines for patients with rare diseases."