Drug Discovery Industry Roundup with Barry Bunin — January 6, 2022

Barry Bunin, PhD Founder & CEO Collaborative Drug Discovery

Barry Bunin, PhD
Founder & CEO
Collaborative Drug Discovery

What’s the Effect of Placebos? That’s a question you might ask after reading a recent New York Times article about an Australian researcher who argues that “The medical community has enshrined placebos as ‘mysterious and highly effective’ in clinical care.” Dr. Chris Maher, a professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health points to an increasing number of researchers who have made the case that placebos are effective not just in pharmaceutical trials—their most common use—but also in clinical treatments, prescribed to alleviate conditions like chronic pain, chronic fatigue, asthma and depression. The article provides a rich look into the use of placebos—as well as how studies purporting to show their benefits may have limitations. The last word goes to Dr. Maher who says of his placebo-prescribing colleagues: “They’re acting as if the placebo is this magic potion.”

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Llamas, Camels, and Nanobodies, Oh My! Drug Discovery News carries a fascinating article on how small antibodies called nanobodies produced in camels, llamas, and alpacas might help stop the spread of COVID-19. The article describes the discovery of nanobodies back in the 1980s, and notes: “Nanobodies are like antibodies’ smaller, scrappier cousins. They are half the size of the fragmented antibodies often used in therapy, allowing them to squeeze into hard-to-reach spaces on a virus that antibodies struggle to access. Scientists can readily make and tinker with them in a lab, and they have the potential to be delivered via inhalers and nasal sprays, an insurmountable feat for run-of-the-mill antibodies.” Looking toward aiming nanobodies against viral targets, the article reads, in part: “Antibodies often have a hard time penetrating these sugary coats [created by viruses to evade immune detection]. But nanobodies can sometimes wiggle through the small, fabric-like weavings to access the viral components underneath. Some nanobody researchers claimed that this was an advantage for nanobodies in the COVID-19 therapeutic space.”  We will see over time, how they compete with other therapeutic modalities in humans.

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Using AI to Increase “The Opportunity to Discover Drugs by a Million Times.” That’s just one of the exciting (and perhaps hyperbolic to those actually in the drug discovery trenches) predictions for the coming year in a recent article in Pharmaceutical Technology headlined “How technology could transform drug research in 2022.” The article includes a look at Cambridge-1, billed as the UK’s most powerful supercomputer, launched by U.S. tech company NVIDIA. Of interest or skepticism to those in the drug discovery business is this note: “The Cambridge-1 supercomputer has the potential to significantly accelerate and optimize every stage of drug research.” Researchers are using the supercomputer “to build a transformer-based generative AI model for chemical structures, which will allow researchers to leverage massive datasets using self-supervised training methods and enable faster drug discovery.” The article also looks at Japan’s Fugaku supercomputer, which is billed as the world’s fastest supercomputer, which will be used to research “functional control of biomolecular systems, and integrated computational life science to aid the development of personalized and preventive medicine.”

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“AI Improvements in Chemical Calculations.” That’s the title of a recent blog from Derek Lowe, over at Science.org. It is a fascinating read for some of us in the drug discovery field. He dives into density functional theory (DFT), which can be used to calculate the electronic properties of molecules, and describes work being done with machine learning and the DeepMind supercomputer. Most recently DeepMind has been celebrated for harnessing AI to make giant leaps in understanding protein folding.

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“Biogen Extends its Setback Streak as Japanese Regulators Push Back Against their Controversial Alzheimer's Drug.” That’s the headline from Endpoint News as it reports that “a panel review of their controversial Alzheimer’s drug aducanumab earned a pushback from the health ministry in Japan.” The article goes on to say: “That latest pushback comes just days after Biogen and Eisai were forced to dig a defensive perimeter around the formal European regulatory decision against an approval and right on the heels of Biogen’s decision to slash the US price and begin a company reorganization as sales stagnate in the face of deeply embedded resistance to the drug—which offered one of the most controversial approvals in FDA history.” Meanwhile, the New York Times, carries an article headlined “Decision Looms That Could Determine Fate of Alzheimer’s Drug,” about a forthcoming decision on whether the drug will be covered by Medicare. The article quotes The American Academy of Neurology as stating that if Aduhelm was covered by Medicare, which typically pays 80 percent of a drug’s price, “many beneficiaries would pay thousands of dollars of out-of-pocket costs for a drug with substantial risks and without proven clinical benefit.” The New York Times also quotes Dr. James Castle, an Illinois neurologist who treats Alzheimer’s patients, as saying: “Please, please, please, do not cover this medicine. Send a strong and clear message to the pharmaceutical industry that they need to show proof of both efficacy and safety before releasing their medicines on the market.”

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Barry A. Bunin, PhD, is the Founder & CEO of Collaborative Drug Discovery, which provides a modern approach to drug discovery research informatics trusted globally by thousands of leading researchers. CDD Vault® is a hosted biological and chemical database that securely manages your private and external data.