by Patrick Cox
August 8, 2017
If you live in the US or Canada, you might not know who Jim Mellon is. But in Great Britain, Mellon enjoys the kind of respect American investors had for Warren Buffet in his younger days.
Mellon is a true self-made billionaire. He has the rare combination of clear big-picture vision and the courage to take big risks based on his own calculations. His investment wins include post-Soviet petroleum plays, German real estate, robotics, and high-end collectables.
Now, Mellon has his sights set on biotech with a particular emphasis on anti-aging therapies.
Biotech and Big Data
There are other big players focused on biotech right now. IT giants Google, Microsoft, and Apple have made aggressive moves in biotech and anti-aging. Top executives in data-intensive companies, Jeff Bezos and Larry Ellison are also placing big bets on biotechnologies aimed at aging.
What is this connection between computer science and medicine? Big data.
For decades, the computer revolution has been supercharging the pace of biological discovery. Cheaper, faster microcircuits enabled tools that revealed the molecular mechanisms of life itself. The ability to sequence human genomes forced a convergence between the mathematical and biological sciences.
The amount of data in a single human genome is staggering. To understand how genes affect health, though, we need data from huge numbers of genomes. We also need to study the medical records of those whose genomes are analyzed. Proteomics and metabolomics make the task even more complex.
It’s possible, in theory, to mine that data for therapies that can prevent or cure the diseases that destroy health and life. To do so, the most advanced computer technologies will be required.
Clearly, the time is right. Across the globe, lifespans continue to increase. That’s because diseases that were once lethal can now be treated. The downside is this often prolongs suffering and increases medical costs.
But what if we could increase health spans?
The Investment Implications of a Biotech/AI Partnership
As I’ve pointed out before, healthcare is the largest economic sector by a large margin. But what if all of the biological data being generated today could be turned into superior therapies that increase health spans? The profits would be historic.
This is why the giants of tech are focusing on aging and disease. They hope to duplicate the Silicon Valley experience, when hard-charging startups beat out established giants to become giants themselves.
Jim Mellon recently joined the race when the company he co-founded, Juvenescence Limited, announced a joint venture with Insilico Medicine. The joint venture is called Juvenescence AI. It will focus on developing compounds for the treatment of aging and age-related diseases.
The press release hailed the launch as a “multimillion dollar deal.” I’m told, though, that this figure is a modest assessment.
I take Juvenescence AI seriously not just because Mellon has been right so often in the past. The computational side of the partnership, Insilico Medicine, may be the most driven company in AI today.
Helmed by AI pioneer Alex Zhavoronkov, Insilico Medicine is headquartered at the Johns Hopkins University Emerging Technology Centers in Baltimore. But the company is international and virtual. More important, it is out to win.
I lived and worked in Silicon Valley in the old days. I consulted for startups like Netscape (the company that built the modern Web) as well as a tiny startup now known as Amazon. So I know what the Valley culture was like before hungry founders amassed fortunes and bought their private jets.
I have great respect for companies like Calico, Google’s medical venture. And I’m glad they’re tackling the aging problem. But, Insilico Medicine has far more of the original Silicon Valley spirit than Calico, which recruits from traditional companies and universities.
Many of Insilico’s researchers came to be there by winning online “hackathons”. These tests were designed to find the brightest AI experts and biologists, wherever they are. Also, most of the company’s R&D facilities are offshore. That means its costs are a fraction of its US counterparts’.
The result is collaborations with Nvidia, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal, Novartis and others.
The core mission of Insilico Medicine is the development anti-aging therapies. NVIDIA recently honored the company as one of the top five companies with the greatest potential to positively impact human wellbeing.
CEO Zhavoronkov knows he’s in a race with companies backed by tech’s deep pockets. He’s told me he must deliver a lot more bang for the buck if he’s going to win the anti-aging race. His entire company exudes a dedication to mission I haven’t seen in Silicon Valley for a very long time.
The tools employed by Insilico Medicine are deep-learning neural networks that mimic human thought processes. These algorithms, run on supercomputers, analyze data too massive for human minds to comprehend.
Already, the company has identified dozens of compounds with potential to modify biological pathways involved in aging.
Generative Adversarial Networks Are a Game-Changer
Zhavoronkov is very excited about Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs). GANs are neural networks capable of creation. GANs synthesize output based on specifications set by the programmer. You’ve probably heard about the GAN than can generate images of paintings in the style of specific artists based on user-provided descriptions.
One type of GAN is the generative hea (AAE). AAEs can be trained to create content to satisfy the programmer’s rules. Imagine an AI that can be instructed to produce a set of molecules that prevent the deterioration of nerve cells in patients at risk for dementia.
AAEs can also predict adverse effects of a drug. AAEs can also evaluate the probability of a drug passing human clinical trials. Insilico Medicine has demonstrated the first proof of concept of AAEs in oncology.
AAEs have the potential to disrupt the entire drug development field. Once we know how a drug works, the program could be tasked with finding another compound that can bring about the same molecular changes.
This breakthrough has huge implications. For the first time, the potential exists to quickly reverse engineer drugs without violating their patents. While this may scare big drug companies, it’s good news for AI startups like Juvenescence AI and healthcare consumers.
Juvenescence AI will help improve Insilico Medicine’s AIs in return for the right to choose the best of its discoveries. According to Juvenescence CEO Jim Mellon and COO Alex Picket, among those candidates is at least one compound that appears to be a true anti-aging compound.
We live in interesting times.