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Meet the 29-year-old who founded a company that’s using technology to find treatments for diseases thought to be incurable

Meet the 29-year-old who founded a company that’s using technology to find treatments for diseases thought to be incurable

Alice Zhang, co-founder and CEO of drug discovery company Verge Genomics

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Alice Zhang, co-founder and CEO of drug discovery company Verge Genomics
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Verge Genomics
  • Alice Zhang started Verge Genomics in 2015 with Jason Chen to combine innovation in neuroscience, machine learning and genomics and apply it to the drug discovery process.
  • The vision for Verge was to become the first pharmaceutical company that automated its drug discovery engine, helping to rapidly develop multiple lifesaving treatments in diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, ALS, and Parkinson’s disease where no cure exists today.
  • On Monday, the San Francisco-based company announced it had raised $32 million in series A funding, led by Draper Fischer Jurvetson, bringing its total amount raised to $36.5 million.

The drug development process is laden with problems that make it lengthy and expensive. Right now, it takes 12 years and $2.6 billion to get a single drug to market, with the drug discovery and development process costing $1.4 billion.

Verge Genomics, run by 29-year-old Alice Zhang, is trying to address these problems by making drug discovery faster and cheaper.

On Monday, the San Francisco-based company announced it had raised $32 million in series A funding, led by Draper Fischer Jurvetson, bringing its total amount raised to $36.5 million.

Zhang was three months shy of her MD and PhD graduation from University of California-Los Angeles when she left school to start Verge Genomics in 2015 with Jason Chen, who she met during the program.

“I just became very frustrated with the drug discovery process,” she said. “It’s largely a guessing game where companies are essentially brute force screening millions of drugs just to stumble across a single new drug that works.”

At the time, Zhang also recognized the advancements in neuroscience, machine learning and genomics occurring all around her. Genome sequencing had become more and more affordable, and breakthroughs in understanding how function connects with genes opened a new field of possibilities for exploring disease and health. And there was an opening for an opportunity to guesswork out of drug discovery. The vision for Verge was to become the first pharmaceutical company that automated its drug discovery engine, helping to rapidly develop multiple lifesaving treatments in diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, ALS, and Parkinson’s disease where no cure exists today.

Recently, other big pharmaceutical agencies like Novartis are also starting to follow suit, adapting technology to different steps of the clinical trial process.

Verge, 14 people large, functions at full capacity. Not only do they have computer scientists managing the front-end of machine learning, but they also have researchers working in its own in-house drug discovery and animal lab.The team is stacked with computer scientists, mathematicians, neurobiologists, as well as industry veterans and drug development veterans.

There are three main problems in drug discovery that Verge is using data and software to tackle. The first is that many diseases like Alzheimer’s disease are caused by hundreds of genes. Verge’s algorithms on human genomic data can map these genes out. The second is instead of using animal data only for pre-clinical trials, Verge uses human data from day one, which may enable greater insight into how effective the drug actually is on human cells. Drugs that work in mice often fail in humans, and that’s because they’re usually there to serve as primary mammal model. Instead of tediously screening millions of drugs, the algorithm will computationally predict drugs that work.

Verge uses brain samples from patients that have passed away from Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease for its human data, obtained through partnerships with over a dozen different universities, hospitals and brain banks. The company then RNA-sequences them in-house, which allows them to measure the gene expression in its most current state, and it can measure simultaneously how all of the genes in the genome are behaving. This data helps scientists figure out what’s actually causing disease in these patients and see if there are connections between genes and disease.

Verge’s scientists can make predictions about what drugs they think will work. They can take a patient’s own skin cell and turn it directly into their own brain cells in a dish. Then the predictions can be tested on these brain cells to see if they can rescue them from dysfunction or death – a basic test of drug efficacy. That validation data can feed back into the platform and continuously improve predictions over time, even across different diseases.

The Verge algorithm identifies drugable targets for treatments, then design drugs accordingly. This is done by mining through human samples to identify groups of genes that are implicated with the disease, and what crucial hub in these gene networks can turn them on or off.

The latest investment in Verge will serve to advance its ALS and Parkinson’s disease drugs. There are six drugs in development, closer to the clinical end, which are being tested to make sure they’re safe and non-toxic. The funding will also be used to expand the number of diseases Verge has in its portfolio.

Emily Melton, a partner at DFJ, told Business Insider that investment in early stage startups is largely about the team, the uniqueness of the idea and the capability and expertise of the research team. But what drew her in most was Zhang. “She was this brilliant founder, with a very organic desire to create an impact,” said Melton. “She felt like it was her calling.”

Using system learning to recognize patterns that would otherwise go undetected by the human eye can speed up the process while creating a bigger and better feedback loop, said Melton. “We’re rethinking how drug discovery is done, and we’re rethinking how therapeutics are developed.”

There’s even more evidence that one type of exercise is the closest thing to a miracle drug that we have

There’s even more evidence that one type of exercise is the closest thing to a miracle drug that we have

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  • A growing body of evidence finds that cardio exercise is the closest thing to a miracle drug that we have.
  • Cardio, otherwise known as aerobic exercise, has been tied to benefits ranging from better moods and a stronger heart to a sharper mind.
  • To get the most out of your swimming, running, or walking routine, studies suggest you should commit to doing it at least 2-4 times per week. Each workout should be at least 30-45 minutes.

Want an all-natural way to lift your mood, improve your memory, and protect your brain against age-related cognitive decline?

Get moving.

A wealth of recent research, including a new study published this month in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, suggests that any type of exercise that raises your heart rate and gets you moving and sweating for a sustained period of time – known as aerobic exercise – has a significant, overwhelmingly beneficial impact on the brain. Those benefits may start to emerge as soon as you start working out regularly.

“Aerobic exercise is the key for your head, just as it is for your heart,” write the authors of an article in the Harvard Medical School blog “Mind and Mood.”

woman running stretching fitness exercise jogging

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For the latest study, researchers at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center looked at a sample of older people who showed early signs of memory loss and were at risk of developing Alzheimer’s. The less frequently the participants exercised, the weaker the connections in their brain’s white matter and the more poorly they performed on a bunch of cognitive tests.

“This research supports the hypothesis that improving people’s fitness may improve their brain health and slow down the aging process,” Kan Ding, a neurologist with the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute and the lead author on the paper, said in a statement.

Exercise may help keep the brain young

As we age, the brain – like any other organ – begins to work less efficiently, so normal signs of decline begin to surface. Our memory might not be quite as sharp as it once was, for example.

Exercising regularly as we get older appears to help defend against some of this decline, both for healthy people who show normal signs of aging and for older people who may be on the path toward developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers still aren’t sure why this is, or how it happens. Exercise could strengthen some of the pathways our brain uses to relay signals for recent events, or boost the size of certain brain regions that are key for learning and storing memories.

older man elderly man jogging nature running exercise thinking outdoors

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Regardless of the specific mechanism at play in our bodies, the most recent recommendations suggest that working out twice a week may be beneficial in curbing some symptoms of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a stage that precedes the development of Alzheimer’s in some older people. This typically involves more serious problems with memory, language, thinking, and judgment than those that might be displayed by a healthy older person.

Most studies focusing on people with MCI require people to either work out or self-report their own fitness levels. But the latest study measured how fit people were by studying their breathing and heart rate. The researchers then used brain imaging to measure the functionality of peoples’ white matter and had them take a series of cognitive tests designed to measure how sharp they were.

Overall, they found that the less fit people were, the weaker their brain’s white matter connections, and the worse they did on the cognitive tests.

Two other recent studies of older people with MCI have suggested that merely amping up one’s workout routine with the right moves could help slow the brain’s decay.

Last May, scientists recruited adults with MCI between the ages of 60-88 and had them walk for 30 minutes four days a week for 12 weeks. The results showed strengthened connectivity in a region of the brain where weakened connections have been linked with memory loss. That development, the researchers noted, “may possibly increase cognitive reserve,” but more studies are needed.

Another study, this time of exclusively older women with MCI, found that aerobic exercise was tied to an increase in the size of the hippocampus, a brain area involved in learning and memory.

Large groups of researchers are taking note of these promising findings. In December, the American Academy of Neurology updated its guidelines to reflect the takeaways of these findings. Based on a series of 6-month studies on aerobic workouts and memory in people with MCI, the new guidelines recommend that people diagnosed with the condition do some form of cardio exercise at least twice a week.

Working out could boost your mood, too

In addition to protecting the brain from aging, cardio workouts “have a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress,” according to the article in Harvard’s “Mind and Mood” blog.

The reason aerobic workouts lift our spirits seems related to their ability to reduce levels of natural stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, according to a study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science. Activities like running and swimming also increase overall blood flow and provide our minds fresh energy and oxygen – another factor that could help us feel better.

Yoga

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Flickr / Dave Rosenblum

Aerobic exercise may also have a uniquely powerful positive impact on people with depression. A pilot study in people with severe depression found that just 30 minutes of treadmill walking for 10 consecutive days was “sufficient to produce a clinically relevant and statistically significant reduction in depression.”

So whether you’re looking for benefits related to mood or memory, the take-home message is clear: the more you move, the healthier you may be.

“It’s exciting that exercise may help improve memory at this stage, as it’s something most people can do and of course it has overall health benefits,” Ronald C. Petersen a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology and the lead author on the most recent guidelines, said in a statement.

While some benefits of exercise can emerge just a few minutes into a sweaty workout, others might take several weeks to crop up. That means that the best type of fitness is any aerobic exercise that you can do regularly and consistently for at least 45 minutes at a time.

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