BioPharma, Diagnostics

Berg: Using artificial intelligence for drug discovery

Berg, a Boston biotech, has a strong artificial intelligence platform for drug discovery. It has several drugs in its pipeline, and is leading an effort to discover the very first biomarker for pancreatic cancer.

Berg, a fast-growing Boston biotech, lies at the nexus of artificial intelligence, precision medicine and big data. Its AI-based drug discovery platform roots through reams of patient data to find and validate disease-causing biomarkers and efficiently craft therapies based on the newly found data.

It has three assets in the clinic, and several more in the pipeline. One of Berg’s most compelling recent pursuits is finding and validating the very first pancreatic cancer biomarker. It’s partnering with high-profile hospitals and researchers to find an effective therapy tailored to treat this highly deadly disease.

“Our sweet spot is the discovery and development of drugs — pollinating the industry with safe, effective drugs they can commercialize,” CEO Niven Narain said.

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Berg is funded solely by real estate titan Carl Berg, and was launched by Narain in 2008. It doesn’t disclose financials, but it’s up to about 225 employees and growing rapidly.

The company’s wants to speed up drug development and reduce the cost, using artificial intelligence as a means to cut away some of the guesswork common in developing drugs.

Berg starts by drawing sequencing data from human tissue samples, as well as information about protein formation, metabolites, and other elements of functional data. It’s then tested with proprietary artificial intelligence algorithms which can ostensibly map out the cause of disease — and point the researcher in the direction of a highly specific therapy.

Berg is working with Harvard and the Pancreatic Cancer Research to find and validate a biomarker to diagnose and treat pancreatic cancer.

With an average life expectancy of just six months, metastatic pancreatic cancer is one of the toughest to treat – in part because we still don’t understand many of the molecular mechanisms that cause the disease.

Narain said it’s one of the early contenders in using artificial intelligence for drug development. However, with groups like IBM Watson using artificial intelligence, and other companies using “omics” and high throughput analytics, it’s hardly the only player in this hot new field.

“We’re seeing that big and midsize pharma is now embracing this new model because of the advent of precision medicine,” Narain said. “There’s going to be a whole new shift – driven by precision medicine, and matching the right drugs to patients.”

Berg’s approach is to develop drug candidates, and take them into Phase 1/2 trials. It will show take the drugs so far as to show they’re safe and effective, and focus on the correct population.

Instead of doing it in-house, the plan is to then partner out with big pharma – companies like Pfizer and Roche – to take the drugs to market.

Berg has one drug, BPM 31510, in Phase 2 clinical trials at MD Anderson, Cornell and Palo Alto Medical Foundation for skin cancer. It’s also in Phase 1 for chemotherapy-induced alopecia.