One year after stepping down as founding director of the US National Center for Advancing Translational Science (NCATS) to join Flagship Pioneering as CEO-partner, Christopher Austin has been named CEO of the investment firm’s newest venture, Vesalius Therapeutics.
Vesalius is built on the idea that many illnesses have a single diagnosis but actually encompass multiple diseases with distinct biological causes. The company’s Diamond technology will put artificial intelligence to work on genetic data and large clinical databases to segment people with such diseases into therapeutically meaningful groups. Its goal is to treat diseases accountable for 90% of suffering and death.
Vesalius will put Austin to work on a track parallel to the one he followed at the US National Institutes of Health while heading NCATS for nearly a decade. “The genesis of the company is therapeutic frustration,” Austin says—frustration over the lack of available therapies as well as the high rate and cost of clinical failures in searching for cures for many common diseases.
Vesalius, co-founded by Austin and Doug Cole, managing partner of Flagship Pioneering, debuts with a $75 million commitment from Flagship. Named after Andreas Vesalius, the 16th century physician recognized as the father of modern anatomy, the company intends to redefine how drug hunters think about and treat illnesses such as autoimmune disorders, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease, Cole says.
“The successes of the biotech industry over the last couple of decades have been disproportionately in areas where a single gene clearly causes a disease,” Cole says. “That’s exactly the way you would want to pursue it when that’s the case. But the problem is, that’s not often the case.”
Austin points to advances in biotechnology since he and Cole both worked as physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital in the 1980s, including gene editing and the ability to test with human cells and multicellular systems. These and other techniques will work in conjunction with the Diamond platform to direct drug discovery and development based on patient biology, he says.
The Diamond platform, developed in-house and with undisclosed technology partners over the past two years, employs AI for biology, chemistry, and clinical outcome analysis in pursuit of both small- and large-molecule therapies. Vesalius will pursue its own drug discovery programs and work with other firms, Austin says.
Multiple companies have developed AI engines that combine clinical data with biology and chemistry. Some have their own drug candidates in clinical trials. Cole acknowledges competition from these firms but says he views the competitive landscape more broadly to include any drug discovery venture seeking a better understanding of biology.
Austin adds that AI has become so pervasive in pharmaceutical research that the technology no longer defines an exclusive competitive focus.
Cole says Vesalius has validated its approach in an undisclosed therapeutic area where it identified a previously unrecognized group of patients and linked it with genetic profiles that suggest a basis for drug screening.
The company began moving this week into lab space in the Kendall Square biotech cluster near Flagship’s headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Vesalius has a staff of about 40 and expects to hire 200 researchers over the next two years.