The Company Working to Build a Cancer Drug With AI Is Opening a Lab in Israel

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A doctor looks at a CT scan of a lung cancer patient in Jingdong Zhongmei hospital in Yanjiao, China, in 2016.
A doctor looks at a CT scan of a lung cancer patient in Jingdong Zhongmei hospital in Yanjiao, China, in 2016.Credit: Andy Wong / AP

The U.S. startup company DeepCure, which works to develop medications with the help of artificial intelligence, said this week that it will be opening a lab and offices in Israel for the first time.

DeepCure is part of an emerging wave of companies seeking to improve and accelerate the drug-development process with tools like machine learning and AI. It was formed in 2018 by CEO Kfir Schreiber, alongside Joseph Jacobson and Thrasyvoulos (Thras) Karydis, who are today chief science and chief technology officer, respectively. The three met as students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The company is developing small molecules drugs– in other words, medicines generally sold in capsule form, as opposed to antibody-based biological therapies given as an infusion, for example. DeepCure currently has five development programs underway for therapies against cancer, inflammatory diseases and nervous system diseases. The most advanced of the five is now being tested on animals.

Its technology seeks to shorten the drug-discovery and optimization processes. Using computational methods and machine learning, the company's system scans a database containing huge numbers of molecules (between 10 and 18 quintillion – that’s 18 zeroes) in order to find the ones with with the highest potential for treating an ailment.

Schreiber explains that, for comparison’s sake, pharmaceutical companies can currently sort through millions of molecules at a time at most, which limits their ability to identify enough candidates, especially when it comes to the most elusive targets.

Next, DeepCure’s system tries to predict the properties required for the drug to be effective and non-toxic. "The goal of the whole process is to put together an ideal profile for a drug with the ability to succeed in the subsequent stages of drug development, including clinical trials," says Schreiber.

DeepCure, which has raised $47 million to date, is a Boston-based company, but in addition to Schreiber, its Israeli CEO and cofounder, one of its investors is the Israeli venture capital fund TLV Venture. Other backers are Sapir Venture Partners and Benon Group. The company employs 26 people in Boston. On Monday, along with the announcement of the opening of the Israeli offices, the company said it raised $40 million in a funding round led by the Morningside Ventures.

With the capital it just raised, DeepCure plans to set up a lab in Israel that will add a physical dimension to the process, by synthesizing the molecules that have been identified to further optimize the models. “This puts it into the physical world. AI is a fantastic tool, but at the end of the day, a drug is produced for the real world,” says Schreiber.

As he explains it, the time it takes from the launch of a drug-development program to human clinical trials is, on average, six to seven years. “Our goal is to reduce this time by at least two years. Our most advanced drug-development program, for a cancer drug, is nine months old, and we believe that within a year and half, we will be able to ask the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve it for clinical trials,” he says.

“Pharmaceutical companies have a difficult time with innovation today – it’s hard for them bureaucratically to change the way they work. I believe that innovation will come from companies like DeepCure and others like us,” he adds.

DeepCure's staff.Credit: Kfir Schreiber

DeepCure’s business model is to develop drugs from start to finish, and to bring them to the market. The company doesn’t plan to license its technology, but for many of the drugs it develops, it plans to form joint ventures or license the drugs themselves to other companies in order to complete costly clinical trials. That model is fairly common in the industry.

DeepCure is one of several companies at the nexus between AI and drug development. In Israel, they include startups like CytoReason and ImmunAI; overseas, they include Atomwize, Exscintis and Recursion. The giants of the pharma and high-tech industries have also invested in the field.

Last week, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, formed a new company called Isomorphic Labs to engage in drug discovery using AI. Isomorphic will be using powerful AI tech developed by an Alphabet subsidiary called DeepMind Technologies.

“There are a lot of patients today who aren’t getting medication, so every additional company that comes up with a solution is helping everyone,” says Schreiber.

DeepCure’s challenge will be to prove that its AI technology is indeed effective in discovering drugs, and that it can be applied through all the stages of development to market by shortening and streamlining the traditional process. But doing that will take several years, and during that time DeepCure will need to line up more financing. As it is everywhere in the pharma industry, the risk of failure is relatively high.

Shahar Tzafrir, a partner in TLV Partners, says that “The biotechnology sector is undergoing a revolution akin to the first stages of the cloud revolution. We believe that in Israel the next technological and entrepreneurial infrastructure will arise, and that it will spearhead this global revolution.” He adds, “Thanks to DeepCure, the traditional drug-development processes that last for decades and cost billions of dollars are about to be disrupted."

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