Bayer, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, has led a $40 million investment in an Israeli start-up developing solutions for allergies and food sensitivities using artificial intelligence and protein engineering.
The start-up, called Ukko, is focusing on two strategies. One is the growing of gluten without its allergenic components in plants such as wheat and corn, the other being the development of a medication that will “re-educate” the immune system so that it can overcome a peanut allergy. If the company succeeds in these ventures, this will have great significance for people with celiac disease or for people facing life-threatening peanut allergies.
The cells of the immune system in people suffering from celiac disease mistakenly identify gluten – a protein found in cereals such as wheat, barley and rye – as a foreign agent, leading them to attack the intestines, which disrupts the absorption of food. Long-term consumption of gluten by people with celiac leads to complications and intestinal disease, with the only current solution being the total avoidance of foods, sauces and spices that contain gluten.
Gluten (glue in Latin) is the component that allows flour to rise and maintain its texture and malleability. Thus, baking without gluten is a complicated venture, requiring the assistance of various alternatives in order to maintain a homogenous texture that doesn’t fall apart. This makes the process more expensive and detracts from the nutritional value of the product. Gluten-free products are often associated with health fads, but often these are processed foods, replete with sugar and vegetable fat, or with alternatives such as nutritionally-empty starches.
This is the reason, apparently, why despite the availability of many alternatives, the consumption of such alternatives among gluten-sensitive people is very low in relation to the consumption of bread and baked goods by the general public. According to figures presented by Ukko, people without gluten sensitivity consume 15-fold larger amounts of bread and 6-fold higher amounts of baked goods than people with such sensitivity.
Ukko analyzes blood samples and biopsies taken from celiac patients and maps the molecular basis for their sensitivity in order to carry out some delicate gluten protein engineering. Ukko’s gluten is designed to retain its good qualities in terms of taste, texture and nutritional value, without being identified as gluten by the immune system. The company is planning to produce its own line of products, such as non-allergenic gluten flour, but hopes to link up with farmers and large food companies who can use their technology in order to produce non-allergenic products. The company assesses the potential market for these products at $46 billion.
‘Re-educating the body’
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The same approach, namely protein engineering, is also used in addressing peanut allergy. One of the few current effective methods used in treating children with peanut allergies is immunotherapy. This involves a controlled exposure to increasing amounts of the allergen in order to create tolerance and decrease sensitivity to the allergen. However, immunotherapy poses some safety challenges. Exposure to the allergen is not possible in cases of severe allergy. There are also side effects that range from stomach ache to anaphylactic reactions, as well as some prohibitions, such as the need to avoid sport activities during treatment.
At Ukko they believe that the changes they make in the protein will neutralize its ability to cause an allergic reaction while retaining its positive aspects that result in teaching the immune system to form a tolerance to the allergen. In other words, this amounts to a risk-free exposure.
They plan to use the engineered protein as medication administered to people who need it.
Ukko was co-founded in 2016 by Anat Binur, a Ph.D. in political science, who is the company’s CEO and Yanay Ofran, a professor in computational biophysics at Bar-Ilan University, who is the company’s chairman.
The company employs 30 people, most of them at the company’s development center located in the science campus in the central Israeli city of Rehovot. The plan is to recruit 15 more people in the coming year, mainly data scientists, molecular biologists and algorithm designers. “We have employees from the world of software and cyber, who are using the same tools to cure diseases and to produce new food,” the founders say.
The funding round led by Bayer raised $40 million, which will allow the start-up to move from its early developmental stage to human trials within two years. Other participants in the fundraising were Continental Grain Company, PeakBridge Ventures, Skyviews Life Science and Fall Line Capital, in addition to the existing investors, Khosla Ventures, Time Ventures, and Innovation Endeavors.