Generative AI biologics firm Absci and AstraZeneca inked a collaboration to deliver an AI-designed antibody against an oncology target, the firms announced Monday. 

The collaboration is the latest sign of Big Pharma’s confidence in the AI-fueled biopharmaceutical R&D space.

Absci will open its AI/ML platform to AstraZeneca’s with the goal of accelerating the discovery of a potential new cancer treatment candidate. The tie-up includes an undisclosed upfront commitment, R&D funding and milestone payments, in addition to royalties on product sales.

“This collaboration is an exciting opportunity to utilize Absci’s de novo AI antibody creation platform to design a potential new antibody therapy in oncology,” said Puja Sapra, SVP of biologics engineering & oncology targeted delivery at AstraZeneca, in a statement.

AstraZeneca also just debuted the health-tech company Evinova, which will focus on digital technology and AI in clinical trials.

Absci’s platform measures millions of protein-protein interactions, which are then used to train proprietary AI models and later to validate antibodies designed using those models. The company claims its platform can accelerate drug discovery by completing the cycle of data collection, AI-driven design and wet-lab validation within about six weeks. 

“This agreement advances Absci’s goal of creating a new generation of life-changing and transformative therapeutics using its AI platform,” said Absci CEO Sean McClain in the statement. 

The AstraZeneca deal comes on the heels of Absci’s November collaboration with dermatology pharma Almirall aimed at developing and commercializing AI-designed therapeutics to fight chronic and debilitating dermatological diseases, part of which included eligibility for a roughly $650 million upfront fee.

In April, Absci teamed up with oncology bioinformatics company Aster Insights (formerly M2GEN) to tap into Aster’s clinical and molecular data set in order to accelerate creation of therapeutics for a range of malignancies and patient profiles.

Absci is one of a number of AI/ML-related biopharmaceutical R&D companies, many of which have attracted biotech partners to their platforms. While interest is there, it’s been relatively nascent thus far. 

Most of these companies are primarily dependent on their ability to show productivity through successfully advancing their own novel compounds, a goal which is dependent on carrying out drug discovery and development in a more expedited and cost-effective manner while also tackling more difficult-to-drug targets. For most of the players in this arena, success in this endeavor is still yet to materialize.

For its part, Absci this year unveiled an AI drug creation pipeline of four wholly-owned asset programs focused on cytokine biology. Each has the potential to reach investigational new drug filing stage in 2025, the firm said.

The AZ accord follows a number of similar moves by pharma companies, including Genentech’s strategic AI collaboration with Nvidia and Boehringer Ingelheim’s move to integrate AI into its drug pipelines via a $509 million stake in Phenomic AI. Johnson & Johnson has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into AI capabilities to power its drug discovery, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report.

For the month of November, AI companies (across all sectors) were found to bring in more investments than other kinds of startups, raising $2.4 billion in funding, according to a Crunchbase report out this week.

As the trend toward AI-driven drug development gathers steam, the White House released an executive order in October directing the Department of Health and Human Services to develop responsible standards for incorporating AI into pharma, due in 2024.

This article has been updated with additional context on AI-powered biopharma R&D.

For a March 2024 article on AstraZeneca expanding into rare endocrinology with a $1B deal for Amolyt Pharma, click here.