Meet Jen Nwankwo, the founder accelerating the production pipeline of medicine through AI

BY Preta Peace Namasaba October 13, 2023 1:55 PM EDT
Jen Nwankwo. Photo credit: Jen Nwankwo

Jen Nwankwo is the founder and CEO of 1910 Genetics, a biotech company that is accelerating the timeline of drug development. According to the  National Institutes of Health, drug development costs 12-15 years in time and approximately $2.6 billion in money. By integrating AI, computation and biological automation to accelerate the design of small molecule and protein therapeutics, Nwankwo is taking the guesswork out of drug discovery.

Growing up in Nigeria, Nwankwo witnessed the scourge of sickle cells. A leading killer of children in Nigeria and Sub-Saharan Africa, she was fascinated by Dr James Bryan Herrick’s sickle cell anemia case study. This motivated her to emigrate to the US in pursuit of tertiary education. She graduated from Claflin University with a BS in Biochemistry and from Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development with a Postgraduate Certificate in Clinical Pharmacology, Drug Development & Regulation.

She went on to become an HHMI Fellow, Molecular Genetics at George Washington University, a Raymond & Beverly Sackler Fellow, Biophysics & Biochemistry at Yale University, and an HHMI-SC Life Fellow, Protein Biochemistry at Claflin University. Nwankwo worked as an R&D associate with Eli Lilly and Novartis. In addition, she was an HHMI Fellow, Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics at Tufts University School of Medicine and HHMI Fellow, Sickle Cell Disease Drug Discovery at Boston Children’s Hospital. She also served as the Director of Business Development at Transparency Life Sciences.

In 2016, Nwankwo graduated with a Ph.D. in Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics from Tufts University School of Medicine. Her Doctoral dissertation on how Calpain-1 contributes to platelet hyperactivity and pain sensitivity led to the discovery of a new drug target for sickle-cell disease. While working as a a management consultant with Bain Capital, Nwankwo became immensely interested in AI and was inspired to found a business based on the technology.

The idea for 1910 Genetics came out of what I saw as an opportunity for technology to help address pain points that I was experiencing as a pharmacologist. I quickly saw that AI—and machine learning as a subset of that—could really help us take advantage of our historical failures. Machine learning could help us learn from those failures in a more intelligent way. It actually contextualized our successes better. Often, even when we’re successful, it’s almost as if we’re successful in spite of ourselves.

Jen Nwankwo in GEN

Named for the year of Dr Herrick’s groundbreaking sickle cell discovery, Nwankwo incorporated 1910 Genetics in 2018. Although 1910 is not a sickle cell company, she remains inspired by it because it is the first disease for which scientists have a clear molecular basis. Nwankwo aspires to eliminate the time and resource-wasting trial and error that characterizes traditional drug discovery. It is therefore no surprise that 1910’s mission is to integrate AI, computation, and biological automation to accelerate the design of small molecule and protein therapeutics.

Backed by Microsoft’s venture capital fund M12 and Playground Global, 1910 has developed two AI-based drug discovery engines named ELVIS™ and ROSALYND™. Each of the AI-driven computational platforms specifically focuses on small-molecule drugs and protein therapeutics. Both engines quickly develop medicines by incorporating AI, big data, cloud computing, computational chemistry, quantum simulation, and biological automation. Utilizing its platforms, 1910 Genetics has already established neuroscience as its first target.

At the outbreak of the pandemic, 1910 utilised its AI capabilities and screened all known drug-like compounds for activity against SARS-CoV-2. Within 6 hours, they screened a billion-chemical library and found hit compounds. After synthesizing the target compounds, 1910 tested them, confirming that two of them could block the entrance of SARS-CoV-2 into mammalian cells. 1910 Genetics’ work in rapid AI-driven drug discovery was presented by Nwankwo at the first-ever NIH SARS-CoV-2 Virtual Summit.

We want to play in that early discovery stage, where you have a target that you have very high conviction is playing a causative role in a disease. That’s where everything begins with 1910. It’s why the company’s called 1910! You begin by understanding a target really well, and you’re convinced without any doubt that if only I can modulate this target. I will cure this disease, or at least I will treat this disease. If you start from that vantage point, then it shouldn’t matter to you what therapeutic modality enables you to achieve that mission.

Jen Nwankwo in GEN

According to GrandView Research, the global market for AI-based drug discovery is projected to grow to $3.58 billion by 2027. Not only is Jen Nwankwo making medicine more affordable and accessible, she is among the pioneers of a soon-to-be multi-billion industry. Her biology-first approach to disease target selection at 1910 Genetics is transforming drug discovery.