Flagship pioneering: Four forces shaping biotech

Four main forces shaping biotech as outlined in Flagship pioneering`s 2022 annual letter↗︎.

For context, flagship pioneering is a life science venture capital firm perhaps most known recently for its investment in Moderna.

Force 1 is the shift away from the current probabilistic drug discovery approach towards a more deterministic one. Instead of trial and error screens of thousands of drugs to identify a “hit”, we are now able to design drugs with predictable outcomes.

One can now consider a drug more like a piece of code or a set of instructions meant to perform a specific task, making it more targeted and thus more likely to succeed. A great example of which is the Moderna mRNA vaccine.

Force 2 deals with the convergence of machine learning and biology. On one hand, we have ML applications built on top of data from high throughput drug screens - helping us better understand disease pathways.On the other hand, our understanding of how the human brain works (admittedly, a very limited understanding) is helping us develop better ML tools.

Force 3 deals with an emerging biotech model where companies have a core competence aka “a platform”. This discovery machine is then able to spin out therapeutic programs across multiple disease areas.

Many argue that this model allows for compound learning where knowledge from one program feeds into another. While this model needs more validation, the flexibility to pivot to new directions is perhaps its main advantage over the traditional single-program counterpart.

Force 4 touches on how regulatory bodies have responded to the urgency in developing covid vaccines e.g. overlapping/combining clinical trial phases, and how their practices may evolve beyond the pandemic. The hope is for regulatory pathways that better balance risk and benefit.