Sanofi inks megadeal with AI firm Exscientia to develop up to 15 new drugs

FRANCE – In a deal worth up to US$5.2 billion in milestone payments, French drugmaker Sanofi will collaborate with British AI firm Exscientia Plc to develop up to 15 drug candidates in oncology and immunology, the two companies have announced.

Exscientia will receive a US$100 million upfront cash payment for leading the discovery and design of small molecule drugs up to the nomination of the candidate most likely to be viable. Following that, Sanofi will be in charge of clinical development.

Sanofi is one of many pharmaceutical behemoths investing in artificial intelligence to improve accuracy and reduce research time, with investment firms such as SoftBank also betting big on the space.

Exscientia, which went public on the Nasdaq in October, uses artificial intelligence to discover drug molecules, with a particular focus on cancer and immune disorders, in collaboration with pharmaceutical companies such as Roche and Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Sanofi and Exscientia have been collaborating since 2016, and if the French company commercializes a drug developed through the collaboration, Exscientia will be eligible for royalty payments of up to 21% of net sales.

Typically, we have to synthesize 5,000 molecules to find that one right molecule which will be then become the clinical candidate. By applying AI, you can potentially do this by just looking at 500… So that can shorten timelines,” said Frank Nestle, global head of research and chief scientific officer at Sanofi.

In November, the company invested US$180 million for a 10% to 15% stake in the French startup Owkin, whose predictive algorithms aim to improve cancer research and development.

Meanwhile, a French court has ruled that families of children who experienced side effects from the epilepsy medication Depakine may join a class-action lawsuit against the drugmaker Sanofi, as per Reuters report.

A Paris court ruled that the company should have warned pregnant women taking the medicine about the risk of birth defects as early as 1984. Instead, it only took those steps in 2003, calling the product that had been on the market for decades “defective.”

Sanofi denied the charges at the time and said it would appeal the investigation’s findings. It has stated that the Tribunal Judiciaire de Paris’ decision contradicted previous ones in this case.

The laboratory will appeal this decision. It is partly based on questionable conclusions of an expert’s report submitted during the criminal proceedings,” the drugmaker said in a statement.

Depakine is a powerful anti-epileptic drug that is on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines, but it has been blamed in a long-running court case in Sanofi’s home market for neuro-development problems in tens of thousands of children.

According to French health officials, Depakine was responsible for deformities in between 2,150 and 4,100 children, as well as neuro-developmental defects in up to 30,400 children.

According to Agence France-Presse, a class-action lawsuit would be a legal first in France.

According to the court, the class action lawsuit may also be directed at Sanofi’s insurer, a unit of Allianz AG.

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