…As we look to resume life in a post-pandemic world, our AI-focused approach and access to ORNL’s Summit supercomputer will become the standard for accelerating important research, discovery and development of life-saving drugs, and the preparation we need to manage the next pandemic.
As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Niven R. Narain.
Dr. Niven R. Narain is Co-Founder, President & CEO of Berg, a Boston-based biopharma driving next generation drug and diagnostic development by combining patient-driven biology and Bayesian AI. He is a pioneer in technology development at the intersection of Biology and AI and is inventor of the Interrogative Biology® platform that has unraveled actionable disease insight leading to both de novo and repurposed development of a deep pipeline of products in oncology, metabolic, rare, and CNS diseases, namely BPM 31510 currently in Phase 2 trials for cancer covered by over 650 issued and pending US and international patents.
Dr. Narain is a member of the NASA/Gene Lab Steering Committee, Advisor to US Department of Defense leadership on breast and prostate cancer and forged strategic partners with industry, academia, and US and UK governments. He serves on the Advisory Board of Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School and the Healthy Aging Initiative Commission at №10 for the UK Prime Minister. He is an industry thought leader in precision medicine, drug development, and AI/ML serving as a frequent speaker at Economist, Bloomberg, Financial Times, Wired, and Aspen Ideas and many international meetings on medicine and technology.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In the early 90s, the rise of the computers and the Internet captivated the world over as we saw its emergence in homes, at work and in schools. I, too, was fascinated by the technology and as a high school student, saw this as an opportunity to pursue computer science in college.
As I embarked on the next stage of my education, my family and I, unexpectedly, lost my grandmother to breast cancer. The personal experience of seeing my grandmother endure the terrible disease and the subsequent impacts it had on me and my family and friends was a pivotal moment in my life. It led me to want to help people, their families and the world end the pain, suffering and emotional toll caused by deadly diseases and illnesses. This stark moment in time, coupled with my captivation of computers and the rising prominence of medical sciences research, helped define my college career path where I double majored in biochemistry and philosophy. I was able to blend the things I was most passionate about — family, computers and research — into a singular focus.
What ultimately defined my career path came when I was a college senior in 2000. It was history in the making as the first iteration of the fully sequenced human genome was unveiled to the world and I had the honor to listen to James Watson, the American molecular biologist who co-discovered of the DNA double-helix in one of my lectures. His discovery helped define the ability to fast track future cures and knowledge, and his words and work piqued my interest and thinking that sequencing the human genome could serve as a historical blueprint — our past, how we got here, how genetics drive individuality and how the environment and genetics interact. This concept helped create a chronological pathway, outlining how the healthcare industry at large could better understand a patients’ past and potential outcomes for the future.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Early on in my career, scientific and technological breakthroughs were reshaping the healthcare community at large and best practices around drug development. I remember seeing the first AI models being used in cancer applications around 2010. It was like seeing “Star Wars” for the first time, where I had the opportunity to see a drug derived from science and technology and its application within human beings. I look back to that day, and remember feeling a sense of purpose and responsibility that what I was doing was going to really help people.
Can you tell us about the cutting-edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
If we look at traditional R&D, historically and currently, a new drug takes between 12 to 15 years with costs of up to $2.5 billion. Whether you’re a scientist, doctor or a patient seeking treatment, this is a long, daunting and costly process, and history has shown that an approved drug may not be as effective for one person over another. Never do two humans have the same biological footprint, however traditional R&D is set up is to find treatments for a majority population. After years of leading research in the lab and at the hospital, I wanted to take my learnings and experience to help patients not only manage their illness, but survive both in the near-term and long-term.
In 2009, I helped launch BERG with the mission to transform drug discovery and development, and in turn, help save patient lives. Our focus, and competitive edge, lies in a blended hypothesis-driven and patient-centric approach where we leverage real patient samples (via a comprehensive patient biobank) and AI to uncover and match the right drugs for the right patients in the right doses. Our approach led us to the development of our proprietary Interrogative Biology Platform in 2010, and the understanding of the mechanism of action of BERG’s leading drug candidate, BPM31510 (ubidecarenone). Our technology helps us better understand multiple forms of aggressive cancers, neurological disorders and rare diseases, including pancreatic cancer, epidermolysis bullosa and glioblastoma multiforme, and allows us to actively watch human health in real-time and intercept before patients’ conditions worsen. We are accelerating drug discovery from 12 to15 years to one to two years and dramatically cutting down on costs.
Our continued work drives both near-term and long-term success for both the patient experience and healthcare industry at large, where we are deepening the understanding of diseases more fundamentally to create better drugs and better diagnostics. For the future, we are driving more efficiency in how the healthcare industry delivers drugs to people — the development and distribution — in addition to bringing society and stakeholders across the ecosystem (hospitals, insurance and patient advocacy groups) together.
How do you think this might change the world?
We at BERG want to be the first company to digitize biology for the future of healthcare, and help patients take control of their health versus being dictated to — similar to how Google digitized information and access around the world and Uber has digitized transportation.
Against the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic, our platform and approach provided us the opportunity to fuel important research and innovation to combat COVID-19 infections before vaccines were discovered and approved late last year. We didn’t need to start at ground zero. Instead, we were able to focus on the ways our platform and expertise could better serve the population. Of note, we established several key partnerships, including a new collaboration with the DoE-funded Oak Ridge National Lab in July 2020 to blend BERG’s proprietary assets with the Summit supercomputer, one of the fastest and most powerful computers in the world, to identify and validate drug compounds that could fight COVID-19 infections. The use of BERG’s AI and the Summit supercomputer helped validate and screen up to 1.2BN compounds, which traditionally takes three to five years to identify a single drug target and into clinical trials. We then began working with AdventHealth, the nation’s third largest healthcare system, where they applied our findings to COVID-19 patients’ treatment plans. All in all, this was a great effort by BERG, ORNL and AdventHealth in the lead up to the discovery and roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines, and I see it as an important contribution to ensure patients have access to other treatments if vaccines are not viable based on their medical history.
As we look to resume life in a post-pandemic world, our AI-focused approach and access to ORNL’s Summit supercomputer will become the standard for accelerating important research, discovery and development of life-saving drugs, and the preparation we need to manage the next pandemic.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
Technology has been a key component in driving the world forward, and the use of AI is no different, as it continues to drive innovation across multiple industries. However, like anything new that comes to the mainstream marketplace, the narrative surrounding its application has been bruised due to companies’ mishandling and extension of misinformation in the consumer mindset. Consumer trust should be the cornerstone of any technology.
For BERG, AI is used as a means to accelerate our hypotheses to help our ongoing drug discovery and development efforts. It is a critical component in how we can help patients manage their illness, and what I believe people need to see is that many companies want to use AI for the good and convenience of the people they are looking to serve.
Yes, like any technology, it can be used for good or bad, but we are seeing companies solidifying their commitment around the ethical use of AI via new ethics-focused committees, transparent company statements and more. As it relates to the healthcare ecosystem, my hope is that people can see AI as a prominent player in not only, discovering and delivering life-saving drugs, but its extension in decreasing drug costs and creating convenience between managing insurance company protocols to accessing critical patient information wherever and whenever one may be.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
Personally, and professionally, I have had many moments where I saw firsthand the ways ego or internal politics could limit the opportunity or progress to help someone. As you can imagine, this led to a lot of pain and frustration for me and was one of the reasons that led me to creating Interrogative Biology®
BERG is centered on doing what is possible and right for a patient, and this means making sure things like egos or bias are not imbedded in the work we are doing and the problem we are looking to solve. At the start of any new project, we bring the best talent, tech and industry partners to the table as a means to collaborate and drive critical research and discovery faster. If COVID-19 taught us anything, its that collaboration is not a just trend for today, but should be an industry norm for the future.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Life is full of cycles, and each cycle welcomes people who will have an integral part in fueling one’s passion and success. In addition to the ongoing support from my family, I have been fortunate to have mentors that have had a direct impact on every cycle of my career path and where I am today. It takes a village to continue to stay motivated and committed to your life’s work, and I am a product of the many amazing mentors, leaders and giants who took a chance on me as a student and in my career.
Dr. Robert Kirsner was my professor and mentor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. When I approached him at 4:30 p.m. for his signature on an NIH grant application due in at 5 p.m., he refused, stating “your emergency is not my priority” — a much-needed lesson, but not necessarily appreciated at the time! Dr. Kirsner also taught me about compassion and patient care. He treated open diabetic ulcers in HIV-positive patients because he understood that the humanity of a touch goes a lot further for a patient than a few comforting words from a doctor.
Chas Bountra, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Innovation at Oxford University, taught me the value of being a firm, but gentle leader. The gentleness, humility and care with which he conducts business, never getting angry or rising to the anger of others, while maintaining an unforgiving manner of getting things done, is inspiring.
Lastly and certainly not least, I offer my most humble appreciation to Carl Berg and Mitch Gray, the other two founders of BERG, Major General Elder Granger, and Sir Jonathan Symonds, Chairman at GSK, all of whom have taught me important lessons in what it means to be a forward-looking, business-savvy leader.
It is crucial to have mentors, people don’t become great leaders in isolation. If you look at the similarities between the people I have mentioned here, they are humble people focused on doing the right thing. You cannot lead with arrogance or selfishness.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Much of my success should be credited to the BERG team, past and present. Many of our team members are dedicated to the collective mission of saving patient lives, and their contributions and dedication have driven both the organization and industry forward. At the time of our founding in 2009, we were the first team in the industry to bring AI and systems biology into drug development, at least five to seven years before the world could see the value tech could provide.
Our overall approach around the use of human tissue samples and AI has helped established our reputation as the original biotech pioneer, and continues to serve as a key differentiator for us in the space. To date, our expertise and approach has driven real innovation and results for patients, established new and extended partnerships from big pharma to academia to government, and lastly, the opportunity to crowdsource different ways of thinking, an important consideration in the evolving landscape.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started”.
- Never assume that what people say is what they are actually going to do
- Always stay focused on why you started something when times get tough
- Spend more time with people who do the work, than those who dictate what work should be done
- Have fun
- Try your best to live in the moment
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
“Believe you can and you are half way there, then work your butt off”
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.