It may seem like an unlikely link but the body’s response to arthritis may hold answers for better cancer drugs, says Luis Voloch, chief technology officer of startup Immunai. Immune cells respond to both conditions, but in different ways. Insights into the response for one disease could inform the treatment of the other, he says.
“We believe that the right way to understand many diseases, and specifically diseases that have an immune component, is by looking at all of them at once or from the top down,” says Voloch (pictured above, left).
Immunai aims to provide that broader view with a map of the entire immune system. The startup says it has mapped millions of immune cells and their functions, and it’s ramping up to do more. On Thursday, New York-based Immunai emerged from stealth with $20 million in financing and ambitions to leverage its technology into the development of new cell therapies and immunotherapies for a wide range of diseases.
The company, which also has locations in San Francisco and Tel Aviv, Israel, was founded last December by Voloch, a former machine learning engineer at big data analytics company Palantir Technologies, and CEO Noam Solomon, a former postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University and MIT. Solomon (pictured above, right) says the startup’s approach borrows from concepts commonly associated with data science. For example, “transfer learning” is a technique in which a machine-learning model for one task is applied to another. Likewise, Immunai endeavors to transfer insight from one disease to the study of others, he says.
Immunai’s map starts with single-cell analysis. The company says it can generate more than a terabyte of data from a single sample of blood. Machine learning algorithms then map the data, creating profiles of immune cells. Immunai says its database of profiles support the discovery of biomarkers and offers insights that help scientists understand what’s happening with the immune system when the body is healthy, fighting disease, or responding to treatment.
Solomon and Voloch have big data chops, not biotech experience. The life sciences applications of the Immunai technology were developed under the purview of founding scientists Ansuman Satpathy, a professor of cancer immunology at Stanford University, Dan Littman, a New York University professor of molecular immunology, and founding data scientist Danny Wells, who is a senior data scientist at the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. Wells says that regardless of the disease, the immune cells that respond are the same. Immunai is trying to learn the various features of these cells and what they do in different diseases. For example, the company’s map and database can show how a gene that’s important for fighting a viral infection could have applications for cancer.
“Our platform is really built to identify those types of connections, cell types in one disease that may be important in another,” Wells says.
Immunai isn’t the first to embrace the concept of an immune system map. The University of Arizona and the University of Pennsylvania have each initiated mapmaking efforts. Since 2017, Adaptive Biotechnologies (NASDAQ: ADPT) has been working with Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) to develop a map showing how the immune system interacts with disease. The partners say the goal is to develop diagnostics capable of detecting early signs of disease from a single blood sample. In March, the scope of the alliance expanded to include COVID-19 research.
Solomon claims Immunai is the first to map the entire immune system. But the company does not plan to use that map to develop its own drugs. Instead, the company partners with others that use the technology to accelerate their own pharmaceutical research. Solomon says Immunai can help companies understand a drug’s mechanism of action. The technology can also identify pathways or targets for an experimental therapy. In addition to aiding the development of new drugs, Solomon says the technology can also be applied to already approved medicines, research that could lead to new combination therapies.
The $20 million seed financing was led by a pair of Israeli venture capital firms, Viola Ventures and TLV Partners. The new cash will help Immunai continue developing its technology and building its database. The company also plans to do more business development. Though Immunai has kept quiet about its work until now, while in stealth mode it lined up some alliances. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the University of Pennsylvania are among the research centers using the technology, Solomon says. Immunai also has partnerships with some undisclosed pharmaceutical and biotech companies.
Photo by Immunai.