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Transforming Drug Discovery by Accelerating the Development of More Effective Therapies

John Baldoni

This article was originally published by Technology Networks in August 2018 and is published here with permission.

John Baldoni currently heads up a drug discovery unit at GlaxoSmithKline. Since joining GSK in 1989, John has held numerous positions within the company and has led many significant cross-functional strategic initiatives. He has an impressive 37 years’ experience working within the biopharmaceutical industry.

The recently established Accelerating Therapeutics for Opportunities in Medicine consortium, was conceived by John, with a mission “to accelerate the development of more effective therapies for patients”. ATOM stemmed from the Cancer Moonshot, an initiative that aims to improve the availability of cancer therapies, enhance detection of cancer early on, and improve our ability to prevent cancer.

In June 2016, GSK, the Department of Energy, and the National Cancer Institute announced their intent to create the ATOM consortium as one of the Cancer Moonshot initiatives. What is ATOM’s mission, how does it complement the Cancer Moonshot, and what are your key goals?

The goal of the consortium is to create a new paradigm of drug discovery that would reduce the time from an identified drug target to clinical candidate from the current approximately 6 years to just 12 months. Cancer is the exemplar disease chosen to explore this approach. ATOM aims to attain this goal by transforming cancer drug discovery from a time-consuming, sequential, linear and high-risk process into an approach that is rapid, integrated, and with better patient outcomes. ATOM is creating an open and sharable platform that integrates high-performance computing, shared biological data from public and industry sources, and emerging biotechnologies to dramatically accelerate the discovery of effective cancer therapies. The goals of ATOM are tightly aligned with those of the 21st Century Cures Act, which aims in part to enable a greater number of therapies to reach more patients more quickly.

Could you tell us more about those involved in the consortium?

The founding members of ATOM are The Dept. of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, The National Cancer Institute’s Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research, GlaxoSmithKline, and University of California San Francisco. While these are the founding members, to be successful, ATOM requires representation from other, like minded organisations (national/international labs, cancer research institutions, pharma, and academics), as well as organisations with deep computing capability (hardware and computational expertise) and cutting-edge laboratory and software technologies. Each founding member organization has committed people and financial resources to the consortium.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory brings deep and broad expertise in high performance computing and how to use those computers in addressing multi-dimensional complex challenges. ATOM aligns with the national labs’ mission of leveraging high-performance computing in applications important to the government, in this instance by speeding the discovery of therapeutics and contribution to biosecurity.

Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research will contribute from its wealth of scientific expertise in precision oncology, computational chemistry and cancer biology, as well as support for open sharing of datasets, predictive modeling, and simulation.

UC San Francisco is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions. It brings to the consortium nationally renowned programs in basic, biomedical, translational and population sciences; and a preeminent biomedical research enterprise. The ATOM hub is located adjacent to the UCSF Mission Bay campus and therefore affords access to its basic science laboratories and staff with deep expertise in all disciplines related to drug discovery and development.

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), one of the world’s leading research-based pharmaceutical and healthcare companies, is committed to improving the quality of human life by enabling people to do more, feel better and live longer. GSK has provided approximately two million compounds and their associated chemical and biological data to the consortium. These data represent a major move to provide insight on how molecules interact with biology and provide the largest initial private source of data available for such investigations. These data (and other like data available in the public domain) are foundational to the ensemble of algorithms required for ATOM to attain its goals. ATOM seeks other industry partners to further expand this important dataset.

What key areas are you currently working on? What progress have you made since ATOM was established in October 2017?

Since October, ATOM has focused on understanding the content of the private and public data sources available, curating and annotating the GSK data, ingesting public sources and bringing together the people and expertise in Mission Bay, San Francisco, CA, USA. ATOM has identified the ensemble of capabilities it requires to fulfil its mission and is currently focusing on those capabilities and algorithms that would predict absorption, distribution, metabolism, excretion and toxicology (ADMET) – off target effects, potential modulators of cancer biology. ATOM is also bringing onboard additional staff to work toward our timelines.

Atom is an open consortium. Many other private and public organizations have expressed interest in learning more about ATOM to determine whether they would like to join. ATOM is working with those organizations to establish flexible mutual agreements on what each organization could contribute to and get from ATOM.


John Baldoni will give his presentation “ATOM – Accelerating Therapeutics for Opportunities in Medicine” at the Global Pharma R&D Informatics and AI Congress.


The agenda for the Global Pharma R&D Informatics and AI Congress includes a dedicated track on The Future of AI and Machine Learning in Pharma. Take a look at the agenda to find out more.

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