(Bloomberg) -- Roche Holding AG sealed a decade-long collaboration deal with U.S. biotech Recursion Pharmaceuticals Inc. to use machine learning to search out potential drugs for neuroscience and cancer. 

The deal allows for as many as 40 experimental programs to emerge from the Recursion technology, part of a broader Roche effort to invest in platforms that can underpin an array of medicines, said James Sabry, Roche’s head of partnering. The Swiss drugs giant will pay Recursion $150 million upfront, plus royalties and development, commercialization and revenue milestones that could exceed $300 million for each project. 

“This represents, in our mind, a sea change in how we think about drug discovery,” Sabry said in an interview. The collaboration will create a “map of cellular biology that will help us identify new targets and new drugs. The hope is that this will unlock previously unknown insights into disease.” 

Roche is seeking to direct its deals spending at the early stages of drug development, where assets are often cheaper, though where the payoff can take as much as a decade to arrive. Meanwhile, an influx of capital into biotech, in part because of the Covid-19 pandemic, means that attractive early-stage companies are looking more for expertise from potential partners, and not just for cash, Sabry said. 

In the case of Recursion, Roche was interested in the Salt Lake City-based biotech because of its expertise in a technology called cell painting -- essentially labeling the structures of a cell with color, and then using machine learning and high-resolution digital imaging to analyze how cells respond to change, such as having a gene removed, or having a potential medicine applied.

“The amount of data you get is huge,” Sabry said. “Machine-learning algorithms allow us to take that data in and create some wisdom out of it, just in the same way that Google maps will allow you to get around a city.” 

Roche aims to use artificial intelligence to vastly increase the number of experimental medicines it can produce. The push into AI was a big reason why SoftBank Group Corp. built a $5 billion stake earlier this year, people familiar with the matter have said. The drugmaker hired Aviv Regev, a pioneer in the area, to lead its Genentech research unit last year.  

Recursion also has a platform partnership with Bayer AG, begun last year for potential fibrosis medicines. The U.S. biotech raised $436 million in an initial share sale in April. 

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