A new Israeli company plans to design proteins from scratch using artificial intelligence and computational molecular biophysics techniques. If successful, it could be “transformative for human health,” its founder told The Jerusalem Post.
“Proteins are the ‘workhorse’ molecules of life,” DenovAI founder and CEO Dr. Kashif Sadiq said. “They are the main actors in the cells, perform most of the biochemical functions, and more.”
“Proteins are the ‘workhorse’ molecules of life. They are the main actors in the cells, perform most of the biochemical functions, and more.”Kashif Sadiq
Antibodies are defensive proteins. Therapeutic antibodies are well-established life-saving drugs. However, selecting drug candidates in the lab from billions of potential antibody sequences is slow, expensive, and often fails. De novo (which means “from scratch”) AI-driven antibody discovery, said Sadiq, would be a paradigm shift.
“We hope to develop a cutting-edge solution that will disrupt the whole field, cutting discovery timelines from months to days. And which could dramatically broaden the scope of antibody therapy to many more diseases,” Sadiq explained.
DenovAI will build on a technology that Sadiq co-invented at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). The company licensed the technology from EMBL’s commercial subsidiary.
The AI revolution in biology
In the last couple of years, a revolution swept through the biology field with the advent of the AlphaFold and other AI-based methods that can accurately predict the 3D structure of proteins from their amino acid sequences. DeepMind developed AlphaFold and, in collaboration with EMBL, provides open access to more than 200 million protein structure predictions.
“Protein design is the inverse problem,” Sadiq said. “You have a set of desired functions you want your protein to have. The challenge now is figuring out which amino acid sequence will give you the functions.”
DenovAI is a start-up company under the AION Labs umbrella. AION Labs was established in 2021 to “create and adopt gateway AI and computational technologies that will transform the drug discovery process,” according to its website. DenovAI is approved by the Israel Innovation Authority and will receive a $2 million grant from AION Labs and its investment partners Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Merck, Teva and Israel Biotech Fund. It will also receive support from Amazon Web Services and additional financial backing from the Israel Innovation Authority and BioMed X.
AION and its partners will also serve as advisors to DenovAI and provide it with necessary data sets.
DenovAI won AION Lab’s first research and design challenge, which took place about a year ago, explained AION Labs CEO, Mati Gill. It has taken the last 12 months to set up the company, prepare for Sadiq’s relocation and negotiate the licensing agreement with EMBL.
Gill said the expectation is that DenovAI will hire a small team and that Sadiq will set up a computational platform for his company and test it within the first two years. He will then have two more years to prove its effectiveness. Sadiq said he expects to “have something tangible” within 18 months.
DenovAI is the lab’s second company. In September 2022, AION Labs announced the formation of OMEC.AI, which aims to develop AI-powered solutions to analyze preclinical data and identify gaps in efficacy and safety to increase the probability of success of drug candidates in clinical trials.
“Israel has to have the ability to attract talent at a global scale to harness Israel’s expertise in machine learning, AI and cutting-edge life science technologies,” Gill said. “The launching of DenovAI and Sadiq’s move to Israel is an important milestone in our ability to do that and a prime example of how Israel can play a competitive role in the pharma industry.”