Billionaire-backed startup puts Big Data, AI at the heart of drug discovery

Berg Pharma President and CTO Niven Narain

The features of Berg Pharma's discovery platform read like a bingo card of hyped approaches, with Big Data sitting alongside genomics and artificial intelligence. Berg has tried to push expectations higher still by claiming it can halve drug development time and costs, but to date the claims--like some of the technologies on which they are based--remain unproven.

Real estate billionaire Carl Berg co-founded the Framingham, MA-based startup and has contributed cash to turn it into a 200-person-strong drug discovery shop, Xconomy reports. The tangible results of this work are a cancer treatment in Phase Ib and a few research deals with academic and government groups. At the heart of these collaborations--and Berg Pharma's work to discover therapies for cancer, Parkinson's and diabetes--is a systems biology-based platform for finding new drugs.

Berg Pharma President and Chief Technology Officer Niven Narain sees the mix of methods integrated in the platform as the firm's standout feature. "There are companies that do genomics, companies that do systems biology, who do computational modeling, and who do AI [artificial intelligence], but there's not one company that's taken all the elements at play in one complete concentric platform that's using it as robustly in medicine as we are," Narain told Xconomy.

Mount Sinai's Eric Schadt

The discovery process at Berg Pharma begins by identifying genes, proteins, metabolites and lipids in healthy and diseased cells. After gathering data on these elements, Berg Pharma feeds them into software that creates a map of proteins strongly associated with healthy and diseased cells. This process shows the disease pathway and how it could be changed to restore health. "I was very excited about a company that actually started with systems biology and this more holistic integration of biology and computation as their driving force. I think it's very unusual," Mount Sinai's Eric Schadt said.

Others see it as a new take on an idea that has been pursued--unsuccessfully--in the past. "There is no support for decades of claims that any new target ID or rational design technology really cuts development time in a systematic, across the board way," an anonymous biotech venture capitalist said.

- read the Xconomy article