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Ambition From Recursion

Here’s one to put in the “hubris” file – we’ll have to wait to see whether or not it’s followed by the traditional divine retribution. According to Drug Discovery & Development (note: corrected source), startup Recursion Pharmaceuticals, out of the University of Utah, states that they’re going to develop 100 drugs in ten years.
That paragraph break was deliberate, to allow the biopharma industry readers a chance to catch their breath, and perhaps find some paper towels for their keyboards. How, exactly, are these folks going to do this, you ask? The idea is not crazy, nor is it stupid – they’re going to repurpose known drugs through phenotypic screening. Not a bad plan at all. In fact, it’s so reasonable that a lot of other people have had it. (It’s not clear from the article whether or not Recursion’s people are completely aware of this – there’s quite a bit of stuff contrasting their approach to traditional target-based drug discovery). Where they feel they have an edge is in their computational approach to high-content screening:

“. . .most drug-repurposing successes happen serendipitously, or with an educated guess based on deep biological understanding of a given disease. And while that may work for well-studied diseases, we don’t have that same level of understanding with rare disorders,” said Li, Recursion’s co-founder. “With disease modeling and computational algorithms we developed, we’re able to make drug repurposing scalable for use with rare diseases.”

They actually do have a couple of leads for cerebral cavernous malformation, but the article mentions in passing that the Utah lab has been studying that particular condition for about ten years now. They seem to feel, though, that this experience should carry over to thousands of other rare-disease targets pretty easily, though. Recursion’s co-founder and CEO Christopher Gibson, who has just finished his PhD, has anticipated my objections:

The idea of a pharmaceutical company tackling hundreds of diseases in a year is unthinkable for even the largest drug makers, which may be working on a dozen diseases at a time. “There will be doubters, those who say we’re naïve to think we can accomplish that. But that’s where science is taking is us,” Gibson said.

I actually appreciate the amount of nerve being shown here. True, I’d appreciate it more in someone who’s actually had some more experience, because then it would really stand out. Drug discovery is a pretty humbling experience – at least in my experience, and I don’t think it’s just me. I think that “naïve” is a completely accurate description of Recursion’s plan, to be honest. I believe that they truly don’t know what they’re in for, and that there may well be many things that they don’t even know yet that they should know. That’s naïveté, and no mistake.
But on the other hand, everyone starts out like this, more or less. I can’t fault people who’ve never done this sort of thing just for having no experience. I suppose the difference is that we don’t all start companies and tell everyone that we’re going to discover one new drug every four weeks for the next ten years in a row, or make sure that we’re quoted saying things like “These drugs are just sitting in freezers. We’re saying, ‘Give us your drugs and we’ll monetize them”. Still, I think that Recursion should come on down and give it a try. Anyone with ideas about how to improve drug discovery should come on down and give it a try. Reality will sort us all out soon enough. Won’t it just?

25 comments on “Ambition From Recursion”

  1. matt says:

    I don’t think the ability to appreciate the difficulty in developing new drugs is limited to ‘biopharma industry readers’.

  2. Henry's cat says:

    What a steaming pile of bovine scatology. Straight out of a PhD. Pfft. If someone with experience spouts this nonsense, it’s not to be appreciated more than someone who is wet behind the ears, its time to reach for the straitjacket.

  3. Dr Manhattan says:

    Well, we all know that many if not all big pharmas have had programs where they attempt to find additional therapeutic indications for their marketed drugs. In some cases, repurposing had indeed payed off well. But 100 drugs in 10 years?
    Disease modeling of rare diseases… the problem with rare diseases is because they are so infrequent, most of them are poorly understood from a biological standpoint. What do you base your “phenotypic screening” on ? And, I have no idea what information you base your “computational algorithms” upon. But, hey it sounds sexy, so I am sure there will be investors eager to put cash in..

  4. Derek Lowe says:

    #1 Matt – true, although the odds are certainly better. But anyone who does realize the true odds, and the reasons for them, is at least an honorary member of the club, that’s for sure!

  5. Colm says:

    Shades of Ethan Perlstein.

  6. Bob Seevers says:

    I assume that they would sell off candidates that have shown promise to organizations with the funds to do the necessary clinical testing. Even so, how much money would be required to achieve even minimal proof of concept for ten candidates a year? And yet, I’ll wager that they find some initial funding.
    They are a lot closer to Estee Lauder than Pfizer. They are not selling products; they’re selling hope.

  7. TX raven says:

    Is this a responsible use of the limited resources we have to help patients and discover drugs?
    I am skeptic, but I guess we are leaving that decision to the “free market”.
    By the way, I think this is not coming from the publication Drug Discovery Today, but from Drug Discovery and Development (aka dddmag). I think this is essentially an advertising email chain of limited scientific value.

  8. Anonymous says:

    100 is nothing!
    I personally will discover 1000 new drugs in the next 10 years!
    (reminds me a bit of Pirates dice game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HoPeqtR5vpc)

  9. anon says:

    At least they have a cool logo.

  10. Anonymous says:

    We all have already discovered tons and tons in our R&D work… we just haven’t found the right biological target for them.
    Just saying…

  11. dearieme says:

    It’s as bonkers as hoping that a world-changing drug might just blow in through your lab window.

  12. MTK says:

    Maybe they’ve got a terminology issue here.
    What if they changed it to drug candidates or clinical candidates?

  13. watcher says:

    OMG, a completely new idea and concept to find drugs for disease. WOw, when are they going to an IPO?

  14. Grim Reaper says:

    – “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” – R. P. Feynman.

  15. anchor says:

    I am shuddering! How can I compete with Dean, who is also a dean!

  16. Pete says:

    What have they been smoking. Me want!

  17. Anonymous says:

    I’m sure they meant potential drugs, or drug leads, or drug candidates. Unless they are taking drugs.

  18. Anonymous says:

    100 drugs at $5 billion a pop… Does anyone have a spare half trillion lying around? Though within 10 years it will cost double that…

  19. Eric says:

    It’s ambitious, I’ll give him that. I wouldn’t have been prepared to found a company while still working on my Ph.D. But a quick glance at the website suggests they have built a team that doesn’t have much actual drug development experience. That might explain the outsized claims. Hopefully they will be successful and revolutionize drug development, but I won’t hold my breath (or invest my money).

  20. J. Peterson says:

    Utah has its share of con artists. I wouldn’t recommend sticking around for the IPO…

  21. Anonymous says:

    If a newly minted PhD grad got the money to start their own company and got ONE drug to market in 10 years, I think we would all congratulate them.
    Good luck to them, but I won’t be investing.

  22. adam says:

    It’s sorta like in the late ’90s, when everyone was trying to make a buck by overestimating the possibilities of “the internet”. Except now, everyone is trying to make a buck by overestimating the possibilities of “big data”.

  23. Moses says:

    The algorithmic part of their work is not really new: informatics tools like Pathway Studio have been able to successfully predict therapeutic switches for some years, based on existing knowledge mined from literature and internal resources. We know that some of the predicted indications have subsequently been borne out experimentally, other users are keeping quiet about results.
    (Disclaimer, I currently work for Elsevier)

  24. Similar fairy tale from Switzerland says:

    There was once upon a time a Swiss biotech company called mondoBIOTECH with a similar business model. The company had their head quarters in a former abby (“Kloster” in German) in the Swiss alps. They were also promising dozens of repurposed new drugs (named Kloster-1 to -100…) in the coming years. See the fancy youtube promo clip:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-a_pCtAf8CY&list=UUR2DwNu7zhMmkSwazlGGdtA
    The bottom line was that they sucked lots of money out of the pockets of their naive (?) investors, never delivered anything and disappeared again……. One of their key assets was apparently a company jet…..

  25. Jose says:

    ‘The disruptive approach to drug development, aided by custom-designed software capable of tracking changes…’
    Cha-ching! We have ‘disruption’! ! sure sign we’re deep, deep in con-the-market with buzzwords territory.

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