Japanese pharmaceutical firm taps Israel’s CytoReason for AI drug development

Tel Aviv-based startup uses machine learning to build computational models of human immune system and diseases to speed up treatments

Ricky Ben-David is a Times of Israel editor and reporter

An illustrative photo of a scientist in protective gear working in a lab.  (gorodenkoff via iStock by Getty Images)
An illustrative photo of a scientist in protective gear working in a lab. (gorodenkoff via iStock by Getty Images)

CytoReason, an Israeli startup that uses artificial intelligence to build digital models of the human immune system and diseases to speed up drug development, said on Thursday that it was partnering with Japan’s Summit Pharmaceuticals International (SPI) to integrate its machine learning platform into the Japanese clinical drug discovery sector.

CytoReason and SPI have been working together for over two years to advance the Israeli startup’s entrance into the Japanese pharmaceutical industry, the third-largest in the world after those of the US and China.

This is the two companies’ first official collaboration, which will explore “the relationship between disease mechanisms and drug MoA [mechanisms of action] in order to increase the drug’s valuation in immunology,” they said in the announcement Thursday.

CytoReason was founded in 2016 to enable drug makers to use the computational technology it has developed as a sort of a GPS to navigate the immune system. The machine-learning software collects and combines data from a variety of sources, including in-house data and published research on the immune system and other clinical studies, to discover insights into the biology of diseases. The technology then builds a digital, computational simulator of the human body that can be used to predict responses to drugs, thus providing direction as to which ones can best benefit patients.

Essentially, CytoReason allows pharmaceutical companies “to develop their drugs on our platform using AI to simulate the response rather than wait for animal trials and then clinical trials,” CytoReason CEO and co-founder David Harel told The Times of Israel in a phone interview. “This also helps to reduce costs.”

Costs, and time, are huge factors in drug discovery and development. On average, it takes billions of dollars and almost a decade to develop new medications, because of the lengthy trials and lab work involved in the process. According to a 2016 study that examined the average R&D amounts for developing new drugs, the costs were found to be between $1.4 billion and $2.8 billion after market approval.

CytoReason co-founder and CEO David Harel. (Courtesy)

CytoReason has already been working with some of the leading global pharmaceutical companies out there including Pfizer, French drugmaker Sanofi, Swiss pharma firms Ferring and Roche, and the UK’s GSK.

With Pfizer, CytoReason has been working on “computational models of human diseases in immunology division and the oncology division,” Harel said. The joint work has so far yielded research on biological targets for a disease as well as on an experimental compound that interferes with CCR6, a protein that is elevated in certain autoimmune diseases like lupus and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

IBD is a lifelong, chronic disease that affects the digestive system, and includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Bouts can last for days, weeks or months at a time.

CytoReason’s work with Sanofi has focused on developing a new treatment for asthma patients, and its collaboration with Ferring is centered around new treatments for patients with IBD.

The new partnership with SPI is CytoReason’s first outside the US and Europe.

“We’re thrilled to enter the Japanese market with such an important player in the country’s pharmaceutical industry,” Harel said in a company statement. “This collaboration represents a meaningful step forward for our company and for the global pharmaceutical industry.”

Katsuya Okuyama, president and CEO of SPI, said the pharmaceutical provider “will continue to contribute to the healthcare industry through the collaboration with CytoReason.”

SPI is a subsidiary of Sumitomo Corporation, a global trading company with 113 locations in 66 countries.

CytoReason is headquartered in Tel Aviv and employs about 65 people across Israel, the US, and Europe. Its technology was initially developed at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. To date, the company has raised $10 million from investors, according to the database of Start-Up Nation Central.

Shoshanna Solomon contributed to this report.

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