Alice Zhang, ’06, may be CEO of the next Genentech. In October 2015, BioWorld Today reported that the start-up she co-founded, Verge Genomics, was poised to disrupt the pharmaceutical industry by developing effective drugs in a fraction of the time needed for conventional drug discovery: “Look out, big pharma. The first generation of scientists who came of age during the genomics revolution is transitioning from the classroom to the boardroom, and they’re seeking to shake up the industry.” (October 29, 2015)
This past January, after scoring its inaugural $4M round of seed funding, the company announced the formation of its Scientific Advisory Board, which includes some of the most prominent names in neuroscience, genomics, genetics, brain disease therapeutics, and health policy, representing several of the nation’s leading medical research institutions.
Zhang, Verge’s President & CEO, met company co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer Jason Chen when both were MD/PhD candidates in the UCLA-Caltech Medical Scientist Training Program. For her doctoral work in neuroscience, Zhang was developing therapies to repair damage to neurons resulting from spinal cord and brain injuries or diseases such as peripheral neuropathy. Using existing methods, researchers had already spent four years screening 10,000 compounds without finding a single promising drug candidate. Zhang designed an algorithm that used data to identify gene signatures that would prompt regeneration of neurons. She then ran the data against a database of FDA-approved drugs, quickly identified 32 prospects, and homed in on two that demonstrated regenerative properties in the lab. That was when she realized the potential of a data-driven approach to drug development. Testing the compounds in mice, she found that one of them prompted neuronal regeneration and recovery of limb function following spinal cord injury four times faster than any previously identified compound. This proof of concept meant that the same approach could be effectively applied to other neurodegenerative diseases.
Zhang and Chen, a bioinformatics doctoral candidate, believed that their novel, data-driven approach to drug development could lead to rapid advances in fighting such neurodegenerative diseases as Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and Parkinson’s disease. These neurological diseases are caused by complex interactions between many genes. The pair set out to replace the slow, expensive, and often unsuccessful approach of targeting one gene at a time with Verge’s approach, which maps out the hundreds of genes that cause a disease, and then uses proprietary network algorithms to find drugs that target all the genes at once. Hear the co-founders explain it in their own words at this link. (courtesy TechCrunch)
The young company immediately found backers, some from unexpected places. Sam Altman, President of YCombinator, a Silicon Valley accelerator not known for its biotech investment, had begun investing in companies that harness big data for drug development. YCombinator lured Verge north to San Francisco and introduced the start-up to venture capital firms and individuals who believed that the next few years would bring disruptive change to the pharmaceutical industry.
Verge is using seed funding to expand development on its leading algorithmic platform while advancing several other candidates through preclinical experiments, including a dozen drugs that show promise as treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and ALS. The company began with FDA-approved drugs to validate their targets but now does novel drug discovery as well. Verge has partnered with an undisclosed pharmaceutical company and plans to leverage additional partnerships to beef up its research capacity and find buyers for the targets and drugs it identifies.
After graduating from TJ in 2006, Zhang received her BS in Molecular Biology from Princeton University in 2010, where she conducted research on campus and interned at the National Cancer Institute. She then spent five years in the UCLA-Caltech MD/PhD program before taking leave to work full-time on her start-up, but not before publishing several papers in leading scientific publications. In 2012 she was a recipient of the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, which noted her work with AIDS orphans in China while in high school and her founding of the Princeton chapter of Physicians for Human Rights.
As a TJ student, Zhang was already committed to research and to improving the lives of others. She talked to Newsworthy about the meaning of her high school experience to her life and career:
“I developed a strong interest in research when the loss of my best friend to brain cancer led me to begin working in a cancer research lab. As my understanding of the limitations of modern medicine grew, so did a new desire to contribute to the advancement of medical science and to make a socially meaningful impact as a physician. I spent a lot of time doing research while I was at TJ, which gave me a strong foundation, preparing me well for the weed-out, pre-med classes in college. Early exposure to research also showed me the real-world applications of science, which is all about asking questions and spending the time needed to figure out the answers.
“When I wasn’t doing research, I spent a lot of time on human rights work. I did two summer internships, one in New York with a non-governmental organization called Human Rights in China (HRIC) and another the following summer in China working with AIDS activists. In China, I witnessed first hand the treatment of peasants with AIDS who had been exiled to remote villages that lacked health professionals and basic care. This was a transformative experience because it was the first time I saw what it means for a population to be denied a basic human right. It was also the beginning of my interest in medicine.
“TJ was an incredibly important and formative time for me. It was one of the first times I was surrounded by peers with passion and intelligence that knew no bounds. It taught me:
- How to channel my scientific curiosity;
- That I’m never, ever the smartest person in the room — and that’s a source of inspiration and learning rather than a bad thing;
- How little I understand and how much more there is to learn;
- That nothing should be taken for granted; and
- That hard work always prevails.”