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Viagra inventor secures $56M for Healx to speed up drugs for rare diseases

Healx Ltd., a privately held artificial intelligence company seeking new uses for old drugs, has raised $56 million in a series B fundraising from investors including venture capital group Atomico Investment Holdings Ltd. and Intel Capital.

Chairman and co-founder David Brown has spent a 40-year career in drug discovery at Big Pharma companies including Roche Holding AG and Pfizer Inc., where he was responsible for developing Viagra — initially for angina and to lower blood pressure.

Now the Cambridge, England-based scientist wants to speed up the discovery of rare disease treatments by using the knowledge and data gathered from cultivating relationships with rare disease patient groups, and a career in drug development, in order to match existing drugs with diseases via AI. He has started with Fragile X syndrome, a leading genetic cause of autism.

"It's all repurposing," said Brown in an interview with S&P Global Market Intelligence. "There are probably 700 to 1,000 safe drugs out there — drugs that you and I would be happy to take if we really needed to, Viagra of course is one of them — and there are 7,000 rare diseases for which there's no treatment."

"So the basic concept is match those 1,000 safe drugs to those 7,000 diseases, using our computer systems to do that, and we have various different algorithms that allow us to do that."

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Healx intends to cut the time it takes to discover an effective drug — on average over a decade — to two years, by using algorithms and computer programs to mine large swathes of data, initially looking at rare cancers and autism spectrum disorders.

The company's intention is to remove human bias in order to seek out effective drug combinations for a clutch of neglected diseases.

"We then had this concept of working with patient groups and that's become central to our model, really important to us. That's how the whole thing got going in 2013," said Brown.

He worked on the discovery and early development of Viagra, which was initially looked at as a compound to lower blood pressure, for eight years, and then as testing continued, it appeared more suitable for treating angina. After undertaking some biomarker studies in a trial run with unemployed ex-miners in Wales in 1993, they discovered, purely by chance, its side effect.

"You just couldn't miss it, it was just very, very effective — so it got repurposed again," said Brown.

Approved in 1998 for erectile dysfunction, Viagra became the fastest-selling drug in history, bringing in sales of $400 million in its first quarter on the market. Universally known as "the little blue pill," the medicine had sales of about $1.8 billion a year for the last two decades. Although its final patent expires in 2020, copycat versions of the pill have been available since the first patent expired in 2012.

"Repurposing safe drugs like Viagra, I think there's enormous scope — that one has been repurposed several times [for altitude sickness and pulmonary arterial hypertension] and I think we can do the same with many other safe drugs."

The $56 million will be used to expand the company, scale up its research and build a pipeline of 100 projects moving into the clinic by 2025. Healx intends to have 10 clusters of disease and related diseases, moving on to aging and longevity next, with five of the 10 clusters in place in the next two years.

This latest funding has come about barely a year since the company's series A round after Healx was approached by venture capital group Atomico, established by Skype co-founder Niklas Zennstrom. Other investors include European-based b-to-v Partners AG, who joined existing investor Balderton Capital (UK) LLP.

Brown, who is also chairman of Healx, said the company has enough cash to last for the next 18 months at least, and he intends to get it into the right shape for an IPO in the mid-2020s.

While many large and small pharmaceutical companies are experimenting with various approaches to mining data in the pursuit of new drugs, AI is one of the most popular tools out there. But Brown is unfazed by the competition and says that Healx has a unique proposition.

"There are a few doing some of the things that we are doing, but nobody else is doing everything that we're doing," he said.