ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 141

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Israel lab backed by pharma giants mints startup for computer-designed antibodies

AION Labs, a consortium formed by Pfizer, Merck, AstraZeneca, Teva and others, sets up company to build a computational platform to design live-saving antibodies from scratch

Sharon Wrobel is a tech reporter for The Times of Israel.

Illustration: Antibodies attacking contagious virus cells (wildpixel; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustration: Antibodies attacking contagious virus cells (wildpixel; iStock by Getty Images)

An Israeli biotechnology innovation lab backed by some of the world’s largest pharma giants has formed a new startup that will harness artificial intelligence and biophysics to build a platform for computer-designed antibodies geared to the development of new drugs.

The startup, DenovAI, is the second Israeli company established with funding and support from AION Labs, a Rehovot-based organization launched in 2021 with a mission to create and invest in early-stage startups focused on AI and computational biology in drug discovery and development. AION Labs is a collaboration between pharmaceutical heavyweights Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Merck, and Teva Pharmaceuticals, together with Amazon’s AWS and the Israel Biotech Fund, and is headed by Mati Gill, a former senior executive at Teva.

AION Labs runs bootcamps to field scientist founders and inventors focused on addressing key industry challenges identified by the global pharma companies, such as designing antibodies for targeted therapeutics and drug discovery, and analyzing data using AI to assess and predict the clinical readiness of drug candidates.

Founded with seed funding of about $2 million, DenovAI seeks to build a computational platform for the de novo (from scratch) design of strongly binding therapeutic antibodies to develop new functional drugs.

Therapeutic antibodies are well-established life-saving drugs, but selecting a drug candidate from billions of potential antibody sequences is laborious and expensive and, in many cases, fails to identify effective antibodies.

The ultimate goal, according to Gill, is to be able to develop the tech to “discover new antibodies that can then become drugs and to be able to work with our pharma companies and other companies from around the industry and help them develop  their new antibodies, in collaboration with the startup.”

“If we know what a target is or the disease mechanism, we can then design a therapeutic antibody that can attack it,” Gill told The Times of Israel.

Dr. Kashif Sadiq, CEO of Israeli startup DenovAI (Credit: Kinga Lubowiekca/EMBL Photlab)

For this challenge, the startup will be led by Dr. Kashif Sadiq, a scientist who has worked to combine theoretical and computational physics methods with artificial intelligence to understand chemical and biological processes. Sadiq was selected as the winner of the challenge (out of 15 participating groups) by AION Labs’ investment committee and will now work closely with the partnered pharmaceutical companies.

DenovAI will build on patented technology co-invented by Sadiq at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, which is licensed to the startup. EMBL is a life sciences laboratory with 28 member states, including Israel, and more than 110 research groups and service teams covering the spectrum of molecular biology across six sites in Europe.

“We are developing an end-to-end AI framework that can predict antibody sequences and structures that bind with high affinity and selectivity to any given epitope. And with unlimited coverage of sequence space. This has never been done before,” said Sadiq, founder and CEO of DenovAI. “We have seen major advances in the field of therapeutic antibodies, but the process of developing new drugs is incredibly slow, vastly expensive, and inefficient.”

Gill added that until now the discovery of therapeutic antibodies has focused mainly on biological processes, done in labs, and involves early stage and preclinical studies which can take years.

“Currently, the development of a new drug costs well over a billion dollars, and takes well over 10 years,” Gill said. “With the help of machine learning and AI computational technologies, we are going to be able to cut down that time from years to months to weeks to days, to ultimately be able to do it at a much faster rate with a much cheaper process, as well as much more precise and with a higher chance of success.”

Gill acknowledged that there are a few great Israeli biotech startups focusing on the development of antibodies but he argued that they are developing a cluster of specific antibodies either on their own through clinical processes or with partners.

Mati Gill, CEO of AION Labs (Credit: Elad Malka/Courtesy)

“They are not developing a platform technology that can then be continuously invested in and available for the industry at wide for large scale industrial influences,” Gill said. “DenovAI will be able to do both: develop its own pipeline but also work with collaborators from across the pharma industry to be able to help them develop their antibodies.

“If the technology is developed correctly, we will be able to design novel therapeutic antibodies from scratch to develop antibodies that attack new targets that do not currently have antibodies that address them, so that we can treat diseases that are not currently being treated with antibodies,” he added. “Out of all the diseases out there in the world, very few, primarily, in oncology, are treated through antibodies. So there’s much more out there we can do.”

Israel has identified bio-convergence — the intersection of biology, engineering, and AI — as a national R&D priority, with a number of already running programs.

The consortium of companies that formed AION Labs won a government tender to do so by the Israel Innovation Authority (IIA) in 2020. The IIA had launched an innovation labs program a few years ago to prod international corporations into setting up shop in Israel and gain exposure to a variety of innovative developments in the life sciences field.

AION Labs is modeled on BioMed X, an independent biomedical research institute based in Heidelberg, that identifies industry R&D challenges and carries out a global talent search for scientist founders.

Ricky Ben-David contributed to this report.

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