The answer machine

A new company uses computer algorithms to generate answers for all kinds of problems, reducing the time needed to develop new drugs.

health algorithm 298 (photo credit: judy siegel-Itzkkovich)
health algorithm 298
(photo credit: judy siegel-Itzkkovich)
The most common way to solve a problem resembles an archer aiming at a target, usually missing and sometimes hitting the bullseye. A more imaginative way is to shoot an arrow at a blank wall and then draw the concentric circles around it. This metaphor is apt in describing an innovative Israeli company that seeks to solve problems in an almost infinite variety of spheres by using computers to analyze complex processes with mathematical algorithms. This technique can be applied to financial data, mathematical formulae and physical phenomena, and even to designing effective drugs against specific diseases. The company, which has raised more than $1 million from private investors, is already working on projects with the US Department of Defense and financial data companies. It represents a breakthrough in solving previously unsolvable complex problems while greatly reducing R&D costs. The startup is Matrix Advanced Solutions, whose chief executive officer is Sion Balass, an Israeli from a wealthy family of Iraqi origin. Its chief technological officer is Dr. Marcel Th rek, a non-Jewish German who studied physics and earned his doctorate in theoretical biochemistry at the famed Max Planck Institute while working for 1967 Nobel Prize laureate Prof. Manfred Eigen at the University of Gottingen. The two met in 2002, when Balass was working in management consultancy and a mutual German colleague introduced him to Th rek. About half a year later, Balass and Th rek founded Matrix in Gottigen, London and Israel, and the German CTO has commuted to Israel 15 times in five years; he now dreams of settling here. Th rek's German wife Jessica, who studied law and history and is the mother of three young children, is also keen on living here. "We have no Jewish roots," says Marcel, "but all of European culture has been much influenced by the Jewish people." There are currently a dozen staffers, including five scientists. The R&D work is done in Germany, while the Israeli branch is responsible for sales, raising capital and business development. "Israel is a fast-progressing country," he told The Jerusalem Post in an interview. "Israelis are open to new technologies, and not afraid to take risks. In Germany, there are some 'islands' like this, but usually projects that would take a year or two in Israel will take six in my country. In Israel, one thinks on a much shorter time scale. Israelis may be very critical, but at end of the day they want to help things progress. They don't regard others as a threat to what they know. It is this openmindedness and a willingness to take leaps of faith that make our work here possible," he says." "Our core technology is the ability to extract knowledge from data. It doesn't apply just to drug discovery, but also to 80 projects we have already done in diagnostics, engine optimatization, patient data analysis, genotype/phenotype and economic data analysis. It's a kind of artificial creativity that is very suitable for scientific research and development," Th rek adds. No fly-by-night firm, Matrix has an advisory board consisting of leading experts such as the dean of the University of Virginia's medical school, former senior Israel Defense Forces intelligence officer Ya'acov Amidror, Yoram Romem, a former Sapiens CEO, and Yitzhak Applebaum, a senior partner in the Opus Capital Fund in the US. BALASS EXPLAINED that his company's "unique artificial creativity software" promotes a process that resembles evolution. "If you want to imitate nature, you collect some basic molecules, place them in a reactor chamber, add heat and oxygen and wait for a few billion years for them to evolve into a frog. We simultaneously use a large number of computer programs, each of which can create an interaction like what occurs between molecules in nature. Each reads the source code of the other and acts accordingly, carrying out all the basic functions that occur in nature such as bonding, replicating and cutting. As a result, complex structures develop from simple ones. Human brains are much too slow for this," says Th rek. This method, he says, can work in multiple dimensions. "The computer doesn't need knowledge of computer programs, biology, physics or economic laws; it requires no expert knowledge to find solutions," says Balass. "There is always a human problem when you want to make paradigm shifts. People study in university and have fixed information and methods. But computers don't care." "Our system," Th rek continues, "comprises a total of 1,000 compounds synthesized in the lab, and the real data from the lab are fed into the system. The technology is completely blind to the goal of the medical application, but finds the model that explains the connection between the structure and the activity, in a cyclic process, and in relation to a very large number of parameters simultaneously, such as toxicity and metabolic toleration. If you have two chemical molecules, the reaction depends on the atomic structure of each. One takes the other as a matrix to copy." THE COMPANY'S subsidiary, Matrix Pharma, has already received US patent application approval for a drug shown to prevent thrombosis - clotting in blood vessels that can cause heart attacks, stroke and other diseases. The drug was specifically designed by computers to fight this problem. Th rek notes that the relevant molecule was identified after only eight examination cycles, each of which took only about five weeks. This significantly cuts the time used to identify possibly therapeutic molecules in the usual trial-and-error method, and cost only a tiny fraction of the conventional process. This drug, according to the research company Data Monitor, could have a commercial potential of $15 billion by 2011. The Matrix Pharma thombosis-prevention drug is due to go into pre-clinical trials shortly, and a year later to clinical trials. An article called "Thrombin inhibitors identified by computer-assisted multiparameter design," written by Th rek and colleagues at the University of Gottingen and published in the prestigious PNAS medical journal explains how they generated a series of thrombin inhibitors using algorithmic processing. When advanced Phase IIa are completed, in Israel they hope, the company intends to offer the drug for licensing by pharmaceutical companies. "We dream up the molecules and then offer them to drug firms," says Balass. "We won't do that part ourselves." "Viruses naturally change by mutating, so you need a strategy to combat it," says Th rek. "You need a program to copy it much faster but to prevent mutation. We thought that the best way to control a virus such as flu, which constantly mutates, is not to attack it but to find something that prevents the virus from being copied from the cell. If we can influence the human cell so the virus can't be copied anymore, that would end it. You need just one component that can prevent all virus species from making copies of themselves." Perhaps, he suggests, the same approach could be used against HIV, or the bacteria that become resistant to antibiotics. Within a year, Balass and Th rek predict that an oral drug they designed to "solve" avian flu will be on the market. Currently, there are no effective medications for this flu, which is usually transmitted among birds and from infected fowl to people who work with them, but which has in remote places reputedly been transmitted from one person to another. The product is a financial risk, as the avian flu may not threaten large numbers of people, but if it does spread wildly, would-be purchasers will beat down their door. Instead of neutralizing the virus or preventing it from entering the human body, the drug protects the cells' normal functioning and does not allow the virus to multiply inside. Thus the drug, says Balass, will prevent the virus from spreading. "There is no human-transmissible disease, so we can't go through Phase II and III clinical trials," says Balass. "We will have safety testing completed in 18 months, and in case of an emergency - a pandemic - we can have the drug available to use. We are taking chances, but we're the only one around." The whole process of creating this drug cost a paltry $1 million - "peanuts" compared to the hundreds of millions or even billions usually invested in the development of successful drugs. Matrix has just established a new project for cancer. "We never bring our own biology, but look for the best-validated science and then work with partners. We're too small and underfinanced to do all we want to do," Balass concludes. "If we had a data system assay for the whole human body, we could theoretically find something for diabetes, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's as well." In a decade, he predicts, "Matrix will be a major contributor of new drug candidates."