In the beginning, there was Compugen Ltd. (Nasdaq: CGEN; TASE: CGEN), the Israeli pioneer in medical big data, founded when that was referred to as bio-informatics. Compugen now focuses on cancer treatment. Compugen begat Evogene Ltd. (TASE:EVGN), a startup that applied Compugen's calculation system to agriculture, especially genetic improvement of plants. For a while, Evogene's market cap even exceeded that of the parent company. Today, however, Compugen's focus on cancer is more successful. In any case, Evogene meanwhile developed the computational system it got from Compugen, and there is today little overlap between the two companies' systems. Evogene is now itself founding a spin-off that is reverting to the human health sector - Biomica, which focuses on the microbiome.
What Evogene is doing did not happen overnight. Several years ago, Evogene began working with the plant microbiome and started developing products based on a selected change in the bacterial composition of soil around the plant in order to improve crops or make them resistant to the surrounding conditions. The big data systems that it has been developing for over a decade are suitable for managing a complex interface between a plant's genes, the environmental conditions, and the DNA of all life and vegetation in its immediate surroundings. The company will now consider whether these systems can also be used to analyze the interface between the bacterial environment of human beings and the human body.
"In addition to identification of genes, we are able, using our computational system, to identify the functions of bacteria in the body," says Biomica CEO Dr. Elran Haber, former VP business and strategic development at Therapix Biosciences. "To make an analogy, I know that the people working in this café are not just Haim and Yossi and Adi, but a waiter and barman and shift manager, and that Haim is the shift manager, but if Haim isn't around, then Yossi takes his place. Every bacterium in our microbiome has a different function, depending on the overall mix of the bacteria where it is found, and a specific function if this intestine is inside a tense person, a cancer patient, or a person suffering from an autoimmune disease. There is an infinite amount of information that has to be analyzed as a whole - really extra big data."
"Globes": And you can calculate that?
Haber: "Had we come to the subject without any experience, I'd say that it was pretentious, but tens of millions of dollars and dozens of man-years were invested in Evogene's computational capabilities. We're already seeing results."
Biomica is already developing an independent product, a result of "the lessons of the historical Evogene," as Haber puts it. Evogene relied on cooperation with the major agricultural companies, which did not follow up on it. Biomica's leading product, a molecule capable of destroying a single specific bacterium, is for all intents and purposes a drug that will follow the same route as any new drug.
Are you designing the molecule from scratch using a computer? This method is innovative and rather risky.
"Yes, but our drugs operate on the bacteria, not on the body itself, so it's easier. I have to change the body gently, but a bacterium I can simply cut to ribbons."
The product is initially designed to assist treatment for cancer, digestive tract diseases (such as Crohn's Disease and colitis), and infectious diseases, but no trials have been conducted so far demonstrating the killing of bacteria; the venture is at the computational stage. In addition, the company will use big data to examine the effect of existing probiotic products on human health, and may develop its own products in this area as well.
Biomica was born as a cooperative effort between Evogene and microbiome guru Prof. Yehuda Ringel, director of gastroenterology at Meir Medical Center. Evogene holds 90% of Biomica. "Evogene wants to be involved in the company in the long term, but not necessarily with this holding. Other partners with other advantages will be needed later," Haber says.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on April 30, 2018
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