The benefits of artificial intelligence (AI) in shaping clinical research and trials have given rise to many new AI-driven biotech startups. According to a recent report, the number of AI companies involved in drug discovery and development increased from 62 in 2011 to 400 in 2022. This AI-driven transformation is catching the attention of big pharma companies like Sanofi.
With the hype surrounding AI at the minute – not just in the biopharma industry, but in almost every other profession, too – it is easy to see why French pharma giant Sanofi has spent the last two years betting big on the technology through a string of drug discovery and development deals with multiple AI companies.
“Whether it be associated to how we generate content for reporting, extract knowledge, or increase our probability of success, AI can truly transform the full research and development process,” commented Dimitrije Jankovic, head of data and AI strategy at Sanofi. “Across the board, there are areas for us to better design our experiments using computational methods, better understand spatial omics data, project single cell interactions over time, and find new indications for existing therapeutics using real-world data. AI can improve the productivity, and quality of work, and allow new ways to approach drug discovery.”
A continuous string of AI deals for Sanofi
In late 2021, Sanofi made a major AI deal with biotech company Owkin, which builds best-in-class predictive biomedical AI models and robust data sets. The two-part deal included a $180 million equity investment, alongside a $90 million discovery and development partnership in four exclusive types of cancer, spanning three years. This deal allowed Sanofi to leverage Owkin’s platform in order to find new biomarkers and therapeutic targets, build prognostic models, and predict response to treatment from multimodal patient data. It was also intended to support Sanofi’s growing oncology portfolio at the time.
Shortly after, at the beginning of 2022, the French pharma giant signed another AI deal, this time with Exscientia. The two companies agreed to a research and licensing agreement to develop up to 15 small molecule candidates across oncology and immunology, leveraging Exscientia’s end-to-end AI-driven platform utilizing actual patient samples. And this wasn’t the first time that the two companies had worked together; in 2017, they sealed a $273 million licensing deal focusing on the discovery of bispecific small molecule drugs for metabolic diseases, before Sanofi then in-licensed one of the candidates in 2019.
As it turned out, 2022 brought with it three more major AI deals for Sanofi. These included a $20 million upfront strategic research collaboration for up to five targets with Atomwise, a research collaboration with BioMed X to power drug development efforts in chronic immune-mediated diseases such as atopic dermatitis (AD) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) through AI, and a collaboration agreement worth up to $1.2 billion with AI discovery company Insilico Medicine, in which Sanofi will use Insilico’s end-to-end AI platform, Pharma.AI, to identify disease targets, generate new molecular data, and predict clinical trial results to advance drug candidates for up to six new targets.
Additionally, Sanofi acquired Amunix Pharmaceuticals in February 2022, which is an immuno-oncology company that uses AI to tailor-deliver medicines that only become active in tumor tissues.
Meanwhile, Sanofi’s latest AI deal was announced on October 10, 2023, when it inked an agreement with BioMap, a company whose AI drug discovery platform integrates foundational large language models and super-scale computing with cutting-edge biotechnology to discover novel targets and design biologics through a deep understanding of proteins. As part of the collaboration, BioMap will receive an upfront payment of $10 million, near-term model development payments, and R&D and sales milestones associated with certain products, with a total potential deal value of over $1 billion.
Sanofi “all in” on AI and data science
Catherine Blanchette, head of strategic digital partnerships at Sanofi, said in a comment to Labiotech, that Sanofi’s ambition is to become the first pharma company powered by AI at scale. “This includes equipping our workforce with the necessary tools and technologies to gain insights and enhance their daily decision-making. Artificial intelligence and data science currently bolster our teams’ endeavors, expediting drug discovery, refining clinical trial methods, and optimizing medicine and vaccine manufacturing and supply. We have only begun to explore the full potential of these transformative technologies.”
Jankovic seconded this statement, saying: “Fundamentally, that (AI) is applicable across our value chain, whether that be in drug discovery, in our development process through to manufacturing, distributing and getting access to medicines to patients. AI is hinging on a strong digital foundation, but it gives us a new way to restructure how we operate as an organization, converging the art of the possible with the art of the feasible.”
To further drive the point home that Sanofi is “all in” on AI and data science, the company recently rolled out an app developed with AI platform company Aily Labs. The app is called plai, and delivers real-time, reactive data interactions and gives an unprecedented 360° view across all of Sanofi’s activities, aggregating available company internal data across functions, and harnessing the power of AI to provide timely insights and personalized “what if” scenarios to support thousands of Sanofi teams decision makers to take informed decisions in a simple and modern digital user experience.
“We have just scratched the surface as to how we embrace these disruptive technologies to achieve our ambition of transforming the practice of medicine,” commented chief executive officer (CEO) of Sanofi, Paul Hudson, in the company press release about plai.
AI deals: a growing trend for big pharma
When asked whether big pharma AI deals are a growing trend in the industry, Robert Poolman, senior vice president of product management, at Clarivate, said that it is “certainly one of the key areas of focus for the sector.” This is because companies are seeking access to technologies and platforms that can help them facilitate the next generation of innovative therapeutics. “So far, this year we’ve seen deals involving Pfizer, Moderna, Novo Nordisk, Merck KGaA, IBM and Google, to name a few,” said Poolman. This comes from a Clarivate report examining which large pharmas are investing in what modalities and technologies through an analysis of dealmaking in 2022 and into 2023.
Ultimately, one of the primary reasons behind big pharma companies like Sanofi making so many AI deals is because many pharmas do not have the requisite thematic and modeling skills in-house. As Poolman noted, it is a completely different skillset to what big pharma is accustomed to. Therefore, the quickest way to access the benefits that AI provides is through external partners.
“When you look at the size of some of the upfront fees and the potential size of the milestone payouts in these deals, you get a sense of the appetite for pharma-ready AI/ML companies and their data management capabilities,” said Poolman. “The challenge here for pharmas is identifying those businesses that can genuinely have an impact on drug discovery and development. To that end, there are a number of burgeoning early-stage AI/ML companies to watch working in the life science space.”
As Poolman pointed out, AI technology is already paying dividends, transforming multiple areas within the biopharmaceutical industry. For example, Insilico Medicine’s fully AI-generated drug candidate, INS018_055, for the treatment of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, has reached phase 2 trials. It is the first drug with both a novel AI-discovered target, as well as a novel AI-generated design.
“Furthermore, more than 130 applications including AI/ML were submitted to the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) in 2021 alone, and regulators are really rushing to catch up with these emerging technologies,” said Poolman. “Outside of drug discovery, AI is already improving clinical trials and manufacturing. For example, Amgen has developed ATOMIC, which leverages machine learning to mine clinical trial data and identify optimal sites, and predict enrollment rates. In addition, the FDA is already engaging with the industry on the potential of AI in drug manufacturing.”
This certainly makes it easy to see why big pharma is currently so interested in leveraging AI technology as much as possible.
Poolman added that, although the financial impact may yet be on the horizon, given the pace of drug development, if someone is working in portfolio strategy and business development at a big pharma, they are likely already having to think about what their company’s portfolio is going to look like in the future. “These technologies will be far more mature seven years from now, but pharmas want to get in at ground level and start building toward those capabilities today,” he said.
So, with all of this in mind, it is probably fair to say that we will be seeing even more AI deals in the coming years, not just from Sanofi, but from other big pharma companies, too.
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