The startup databasing our immune system

Luis Voloch and Noam Solomon / Photo: PR

Immunai helps drug companies make immune therapies more accurate and customized.

One side-effect of the Covid-19 period is that it has turned everyone into an immunologist. People argue on social media about immune effectiveness, short- and long-term antibody resistance, and discuss the differences between neutralizing antibodies and non-neutralizing ones. But the immune system is more complicated than this, with hundreds of cell types that affect one another's activity.

The fact that we can administer a vaccine or a medicine and observe its effect both on the chances of contracting a disease as well as its side effects is one of medicine’s most significant developments. This is good science, empirical and helpful, but if we could really dive in and understand how each cell affects every other cell, we could develop drugs based on immune system manipulation in a much more efficient, accurate, and customized way.

This is exactly what Immunai wants to do; the company is building a database to profile the interactions between immune system cells in states of health and disease. According to company executives, it already has the world’s largest database in this field.

Aside from protection against infectious disease, the immune system is critical for treating many diseases yet, in some cases, it can cause harm. In recent years, new anti-cancer therapies have spurred the immune system to fight tumors, and are very successful in doing so - but only in some patients. In other cases, the drugs are helpful but with severe side effects. Using its database, Immunai seeks out and discovers which medications will be effective for whom and how to avoid side effects. It also wishes to assist and partner with drug companies in developing new drugs.

Even now, the company has been generating revenue from the world's leading pharmaceutical companies by providing access to its database. It is soon expected to announce a joint development agreement with a major pharmaceutical company - its preferred business model.

Immunai's move into partnership with pharmaceutical companies is similar to the way other companies, such as CompuGen, have worked. Initially, CompuGen operated as an information provider; only later did it reinvent itself as a drug developer. The unique database is the company’s growth engine, but isn’t the product that’s actually sold.

"The fact that we built the database ourselves gives us a monopoly on the information," says Dr. Noam Solomon, the company's CEO. "In the first stage, a company turns to us and we explain how its product works, what it does at the cellular level, and how the product can be improved and refined, better adapted to those patients who will benefit most from it, or how to reduce its side effects. This business model oo can involve payment for success. The goal for the future is be a partner in drug development."

The potential to develop treatments for many diseases

Solomon, a Harvard and MIT graduate in computational biology, founded the company with fellow MIT graduate Luis Voloch, a former machine learning (ML) engineer at Planatir Technologies, a former senior ML scientist in the field of genetic information at MyHeritage, and former head of data science at the Israel Tech Challenge. The company is based on technology developed by Ansuman Satpathy, a professor of cancer immunology at Stanford University, and Danny Wells, founding data scientist and current member of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. The founding team also includes Dan Littman, a professor of molecular immunology at New York University.

Immunai's technology is based on an artificial intelligence (AI) system and unique capabilities for profiling single-cell activity. From one blood test, the company can derive data about RNA in many immune system cells. According to the company, data is generated at the individual cell level, which makes it possible to understand not only the cell’s genetic structure, but also which genes are expressed.

"We actually put a kind of barcode on the cell; that's how we understand to which cell each gene that is expressed belongs," says Salomon. Clinical data about each subject is also logged, facilitating cross-referencing between immune cell activity and interactions between cells on the one hand, and the clinical condition and changes in it over time on the other.

"For example, we’ve seen through our technology that after immunotherapy, most of the immune cells inside the tumor were not near the tumor before. This was a paper published in the journal Nature Medicine," says Voloch.

"Our advantage is that we examine the immune system in a state of health, and in a variety of disease states. We’re not focused on a single disease state and a single patient group, like the companies developing the drugs for these diseases," Solomon adds.

"Our product has a great market opportunity because it is not exactly a product, but a platform applicable to any disease that can be affected by the immune system, including infectious diseases, cardiology, allergic and autoimmune diseases, degenerative diseases of the brain and more."

Immunai

  1. Founded in 2018 by Dr. Noam Solomon, who serves as CEO, and Luis Voloch, Chief Technology Officer, both MIT graduates.
  2. The company, which built a database that maps immune system cellular activity, has raised $20 million from Viola Ventures and TLV Partners.
  3. Stage of activity: Revenue from collaborations with pharmaceutical companies and hospitals.
  4. The company has 30 employees in Tel Aviv.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on September 23, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Luis Voloch and Noam Solomon / Photo: PR
Luis Voloch and Noam Solomon / Photo: PR
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