How BlackThorn is using artificial intelligence to improve mental health diagnosis

Steven Loeb · June 14, 2019 · Short URL:

The company just raised a $76M funding round from investors that include GV and Johnson & Johnson

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There's a lot of talk about the mental health crisis in America, and what to do to solve it. One of the big problems, though, lies actually diagnosing the problem, and understanding the real underlying issue that is causing the problem. 

BlackThorn Therapeutics wants to finally change that by using artificial intelligence to diagnose mental health issues based on each person's biological markers. 

This week, the company announced that it raised a $76 million Series B funding round from new investors, including Polaris Partners, Premier Partners, Scripps Research, and Vertex Ventures HC. Existing investors Alexandria Venture Investments, Altitude Life Science Ventures, ARCH Venture Partners, Biomatics Capital, GV, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, and Mercury Fund also participated. This new funding brings BlackThorn's total funding to $130 million.

BlackThorn also announced that it added three new members to its board of directors: Brian Chee, a managing partner at Polaris Partners, Lori Hu, a managing director at Vertex Ventures HC, and Julie Sunderland, a managing director at Biomatics Capital. The company also also announced two appointments to its executive management team: Jane Tiller, MBChB, FRCPsych, is now its chief medical officer, and Laura Hansen, Ph.D., has been hired as vice president of corporate affairs. Dr. Tiller will lead BlackThorn’s clinical and regulatory efforts, while Dr. Hansen will be responsible for public and investor relations, scientific communications, and patient advocacy.

Bill Martin, Ph.D., President and COO at BlackThorn Therapeutics, spoke to VatorNews about the current problems with mental health diagnoses, and BlackThorn is looking to change that. 

VatorNews: What is the problem that you have identified and how are you solving it with BlackThorn?

Bill Martin: Today, 20% of U.S. adults live with mental illness, yet therapeutic options are limited. Basically, we have had a poor understanding of the biological roots of mental illness, and, because of this, patients are lumped into diagnostic categories (e.g., depression, OCD, bipolar), which are defined by the presence or absence of certain symptoms. Without understanding the underlying disease biology, it’s nearly impossible to take a rational approach to drug discovery and disease management. Indeed, patients with mental illness have had to endure cycles of trial and error to find out which drug works for them personally, if any at all. On top of that, clinical trials of novel drug candidates continue to fail because there has been no way to identify patient subgroups a priori, who are most likely to respond to therapy.

For therapeutic innovation to occur in psychiatric medicine, we need to understand the brain basis of mental disorders so that diagnoses and treatments can be grounded in biology rather than symptoms. Likewise, for successful clinical trials, we need to be able to identify and enroll patients who are most likely to respond to treatment. All of this is going to require the ability to collect, aggregate and analyze a lot of data at scale. Fortunately, advances in data science and neuroscience are making this possible.

BlackThorn has positioned itself at the forefront of these efforts. We have engineered PathFinder™, a cloud-based computational psychiatry and data platform, to enable the collection, integration and analysis of multimodal data at great speed and scale. We apply data-driven approaches to create an understanding of the core underlying pathophysiology of neurobehavioral disorders. We use these insights to generate objective neuromarkers, which support drug target identification, patient stratification and objective clinical trial endpoints. By identifying more homogenous patient subgroups who share underlying neurobiology, we aim to direct our drug candidates to neurobiologically-defined patient populations most likely to respond.

VN: Who is the typical customer for BlackThorn? Walk me through the process of how someone uses it.

BM: Right now, we are our own customer, meaning that we use PathFinder™ to advance and broaden our own proprietary pipeline of drug candidates for neurobehavioral disorders. We can use PathFinder™ three main ways across the entire spectrum of drug discovery and development: (1) to find novel drug targets within brain circuits of interest, (2) to discover novel molecules and identify “hits” against drug targets, and (3) to identify patient subgroups most likely to respond to our targeted drug therapy. Basically, we have aggregated public and private datasets containing multiple types of information into a cloud-based platform, which serves as a single point of entry for interrogation with incredible computational power. We made it customizable as well to suit industry needs.

VN: What kind of ROI have you been able to calculate for patients in terms of improvement to their health or time/money saved? Do you have hard numbers you can share?

BM: Our technologies and therapeutic portfolio are in the development stage. The goal is to increase probability of success in drug development by identifying drug targets grounded in human biology and patient subgroups that will be most likely to respond to drug treatment. Ultimately, this strategy will yield savings for payers in that we are defining responsive subgroups, and we expect patients would stay on therapy longer if they are responders.

VN: What will you do with the money you have now raised? Will it go toward product development, hiring, expansion? Please give me as much detail as you can.

BM: The funds will go towards advancing our platform and therapeutic pipeline as we build out a world-class team at the intersection of technology and clinical neuroscience. In 2020, we expect to have at least one, but maybe two, phase 2 trials for two molecules targeting mood disorders, plus a phase 1 trial of a 3rd molecule for ASD.

VN: Who are your competitors? What separates BlackThorn from them?

BM: In the neuropsychiatry space, we are not aware of any others who fully integrating data science across drug discovery and development. Others may be doing one piece of what we have built, but none in a fully integrated fashion.

VN: What will Jane Tiller bring to BlackThorn as as chief medical officer, and what will Laura Hansen bring as VP of corporate affairs? Why were they the right fit to join the company?

BM: Dr. Tiller is not only a seasoned drug developer but also a psychiatrist, and one who embraces our transformative vision of ushering in a new era of personalized medicine for mental health. She brings leadership skills necessary to oversee our cross-functional teams, who must navigate at the intersection of high tech and biotech to be successful in our data-driven approach. She is responsible for our clinical and regulatory strategies to deliver our novel therapeutics to the medical and patient community.

Dr. Hansen is a seasoned communications professional in the biotech industry. She is leading BlackThorn’s communication efforts across multiple key stakeholder audiences including investors, media and patient advocates. She has worked with private and publicly traded companies across all stages of drug development to build corporate brand and reputation as well as ensure that both the science and business are well understood.

They are both great fits for BlackThorn for many reasons including their bold entrepreneurial spirit, ability to lead cross-functionally, and passion for our patient-focused mission.

VN: How will Brian Chee, Lori Hu and Julie Sunderland help the company achieve its goals as members of the board?

BM: We are doing something bold with tremendous transformative potential in using artificial intelligence technologies to make personalized medicine for mental health a reality. Our board reflects this intersection of high tech and biotech, and their unique perspectives are helping us to devise and implement strategies to maximize value of all our assets, including our PathFinder™ platform and therapeutic portfolio.

VN: What is your ultimate goal with BlackThorn? Where would you like to see the company in the next five years?

BM: Our ultimate goal is to be the leading neurobehavioral health company delivering personalized medicine at scale to transform the lives of people with neurobehavioral disorders.

In five years, we will have validated our AI-driven approach across target, molecule, and patient identification aspects of our platform and have our first targeted drug candidate well advanced along the regulatory path to approval.

VN: Is there anything else I should know about BlackThorn or the new funding round?

BM: Yes, the funding allows us to continue to build out our team of machine learning experts, neuroscientists, clinicians, software engineers and cloud technology architects to merge academic-level scientific rigor with industry-level efficiency. This unique combination of technology and data science positions us at the leading edge of neurobehavioral therapeutics.

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