Merck KGaA goes again in AI, expanding Quris toxicity prediction pact days after inking 2 deals

The artificial intelligence deals keep coming at Merck KGaA. Days after the pharma put out news of two new AI pacts, Quris-AI has shared details of the expansion of the drug toxicity prediction project it's working on with the German drugmaker.

Merck teamed up with Quris early last year, inking a deal to compare its BioAI safety prediction platform to traditional in vitro and in vivo approaches. The arrangement positioned Merck to find out whether a platform that combines miniaturized human tissues on a chip, nanosensing and machine learning can play a role in predicting which drug candidates are safe to give to humans. 

Nineteen months later, Merck has seen enough to expand its agreement with Quris. The enlarged deal sets Merck up to use BioAI to identify liver toxicity risks in a selection of drug candidates while also giving it an option to exclusively license the technology in a specific disease domain for up to five years.

Danny Bar-Zohar, global head of R&D and chief medical officer for the healthcare business of Merck, set out the thinking behind the deal in a statement, explaining that results from the initial collaboration have pointed the way to “an AI-enabled IND process that reduces the reliance on animal testing.” Bar-Zohar added that improving the R&D process could “reduce significant time and cost investments.” 

Merck is tightening its ties to Quris after the BioAI platform accurately predicted which drug caused drug-induced liver injury in a preclinical pilot study. Quris pitches its platform as a way to reduce the cost and time of drug development and to avoid “the potentially disastrous pitfalls of traditional animal testing.” 

The claims about the effect of AI on the time and cost of drug development echo the statement of other companies that are applying AI to other steps in the R&D process. Merck secured itself a closer look at two players in the space last week by inking deals with BenevolentAI and Exscientia that are collectively worth more than $30 million upfront and $1 billion in potential milestones.