Cancer Drug Development | NEC initiates AI-driven drug discovery business

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NEC Corporation will expand the application of its AI technologies, “NEC the WISE”, to cancer drug development that focuses on advanced immunotherapy as part of enhancing its healthcare business.

As a start, clinical trials for individualized neoantigen (*2) vaccines will be initiated with Transgene SA (Transgene), making NEC the first company in Japan to initiate such trials.

The companies will target head and neck cancer and ovarian cancer with clinical trials that will be conducted in the United States and Europe. In April, an application to the United States Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Investigational New Drug (IND) program received clearance to proceed with a Phase 1 clinical trial. Application submissions to the UK and France are currently under review. The investigational drug is being jointly developed by NEC and Transgene.

An estimated 18.1 million new cancer cases were diagnosed worldwide in 2018 (*3) and cancer is stated as the leading cause of death in Japan (*4). There are great expectations in the development for better cancer treatments. This applies especially to cancer immunotherapy, which has been hailed as the next generation of cancer treatment, and utilizes a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer.

NEC has an established history of working in close collaboration with academic institutions that include Kochi University and Yamaguchi University on research related to cancer drug discovery.

In recent years, the advent of genomic analysis has resulted in a massive growth in genome data, which has required artificial intelligence (AI) in order to be efficiently and accurately processed. NEC is aiming to see its AI-driven drug discovery business valued at ¥300 billion by 2025 through the development of more efficacious and safer immunotherapies.

In the development of individualized neoantigen vaccines, the selection of target neoantigens is crucial. NEC’s neoantigen prediction utilizes its proprietary AI, such as graph-based relational learning, which is combined with other sources of data to discover candidate neoantigen targets. NEC comprehensively evaluates the candidate neoantigens with a primary focus placed on its in-house MHC-binding affinity prediction. As such, NEC is able to effectively prioritize the numerous candidate neoantigens identified in a single patient. This unique approach has resulted in NEC’s acceptance into the Tumor neoantigEn SeLection Alliance (TESLA) consortium, thereby allowing NEC to actively contribute to this global research initiative which seeks to improve cancer treatment.

NEC is committed to the provision of social solutions that promote an equal and prosperous society that embraces diversity and allows all individuals to play an active role.

“The advent of individualized immunotherapies calls for new business paradigms and thus new types of alliances. We are confident that Transgene and NEC have established a strong technological foundation with great synergies for the co-development of our individualised neoantigen vaccine, TG4050,” said Éric Quéméneur, Pharm.D., Ph.D., Executive Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer of Transgene. “We look forward to capitalizing on our synergistic expertise and complementary business development efforts.”