The latest startup to emerge from Flagship Pioneering aims to change drug discovery by starting the process with a clear understanding of cell behavior.
Cellarity—like many other startups looking to revamp the slow, costly process of developing new medicines—is using machine-learning tools to do so, leveraging computational advances to advance a new way of thinking about how to treat human illness.
Launched in 2017 and backed with $50 million from the Cambridge, MA-based venture capital firm, Flagship general partner and founding Cellarity CEO Avak Kahvejian traces the startup’s origins to an “almost naïve” conversation in the venture capital firm’s labs about how new medicines are made.
“We asked ourselves whether a more holistic approach could be used to encode the biology of a cell in a computer,” Kahvejian says of the talk with Nick Plugis, Cellarity co-founder and senior associate. “Then, could we use that to make predictions about how drugs would work, about how disease is working, and how we can reverse these processes.”
They decided they could, and the company began its research. Since then it has used the AI tools and what it refers to as “network biology” to develop more than 250 digital guides, or Cellarity Maps, that are meant to both show how cells are acting and interacting and to sketch out ways to potentially affect that behavior.
Cellarity is also, alongside startups such as Celsius Therapeutics, using what are known as single-cell technologies to allow it to understand the dynamic of cell behavior at the level of individual cells. The company says how it has combined and deployed these technologies has enabled it to progress as rapidly as it has toward developing new drugs. In less than one year, Cellarity’s tech has led it to identify “nearly a dozen” lead drug candidates with in vivo proof-of-concept across multiple therapeutic areas.
That progress shows the promise of the platform, says Cristina Rondinone, Cellarity’s president. She wouldn’t reveal the areas, but says the company’s tech means it is not limited in the type of indications for which it plans to develop new drugs. Rondinone was most recently a senior vice president and head of cardiovascular, renal, and metabolic diseases at AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN).
“Our fundamental premise is, drugs actually act through network effects,” says Kahvejian. “They may hit a target, but they have dramatic impact on the behavior of cells because cells are complex molecular networks, and that’s a much better way, in our view, of actually identifying drugs that will work, instead of starting with a target in mind or with a particular cell in mind that you want to ablate or excite.”
The Cellarity leadership team includes Milind Kamkolkar, who was previously chief data officer at Sanofi (NYSE: SNY), and Chief Technology Officer Chad Nusbaum, who joined from the Broad Technology Labs, which he founded and led.
Flagship has launched a number of companies from its labs, spinning out biotechs such as Moderna Therapeutics (NASDAQ: MRNA) and Kaleido Biosciences (NASDAQ: KLDO). Earlier this year it closed a new $824 million fund to provide financing for companies which, like Cellarity, are based on a technological platform that can produce several drugs rather than a single asset.
Other companies that spun out of Flagship this year include Kintai Therapeutics, which is developing drugs that interact with the human microbome.