Improving drug development with a vast map of the immune system

June 07, 2024

The human immune system is a network made up of trillions of cells that are constantly circulating throughout the body. Now, Immunai is helping to predict how patients will respond to treatments by building a comprehensive map of the immune system. “Our starting point was creating what I call the Google Maps for the immune system,” Immunai co-founder and CEO Noam Solomon says. At the core of Immunai’s approach is a focus on the immune system, which other companies shy away from because of its complexity. “We look at the immune system because the immune system is the common denominator.

The human immune system is a network made up of trillions of cells that are constantly circulating throughout the body. The cellular network orchestrates interactions with every organ and tissue to carry out an impossibly long list of functions that scientists are still working to understand. All that complexity limits our ability to predict which patients will respond to treatments and which ones might suffer debilitating side effects.

The issue often leads pharmaceutical companies to stop developing drugs that could help certain patients, halting clinical trials even when drugs show promising results for some people.

Now, Immunai is helping to predict how patients will respond to treatments by building a comprehensive map of the immune system. The company has assembled a vast database it calls AMICA, that combines multiple layers of gene and protein expression data in cells with clinical trial data to match the right drugs to the right patients.

“Our starting point was creating what I call the Google Maps for the immune system,” Immunai co-founder and CEO Noam Solomon says. “We started with single-cell RNA sequencing, and over time we’ve added more and more ‘omics’: genomics, proteomics, epigenomics, all to measure the immune system’s cellular expression and function, to measure the immune environment holistically. Then we started working with pharmaceutical companies and hospitals to profile the immune systems of patients undergoing treatments to really get to the root mechanisms of action and resistance for therapeutics.”

Immunai’s big data foundation is a result of its founders’ unique background. Solomon and co-founder Luis Voloch ’13, SM ’15 hold degrees in mathematics and computer science. In fact, Solomon was a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Mathematics at the time of Immunai’s founding.

Solomon frames Immunai’s mission as stopping the decades-long divergence of computer science and the life sciences. He believes the single biggest factor driving the explosion of computing has been Moore’s Law — our ability to exponentially increase the number of transistors on a chip over the past 60 years. In the pharmaceutical industry, the reverse is happening: By one estimate, the cost of developing a new drug roughly doubles every nine years. The phenomenon has been dubbed Eroom’s Law (“Eroom” for “Moore” spelled backward).

Solomon sees the trend eroding the case for developing new drugs, with huge consequences for patients.

“Why should pharmaceutical companies invest in discovery if they won’t get a return on investment?” Solomon asks. “Today, there’s only a 5 to 10 percent chance that any given clinical trial will be successful. What we’ve built through a very robust and granular mapping of the immune system is a chance to improve the preclinical and clinical stages of drug development.”

A change in plans

Solomon entered Tel Aviv University when he was 14 and earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science by 19. He earned two PhDs in Israel, one in computer science and the other in mathematics, before coming to MIT in 2017 as a postdoc to continue his mathematical research career.

That year Solomon met Voloch, who had already earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math and computer science from MIT. But the researchers were soon exposed to a problem that would take them out of their comfort zones and change the course of their careers.

Voloch’s grandfather was receiving a cocktail of treatments for cancer at the time. The cancer went into remission, but he suffered terrible side effects that caused him to stop taking his medication.

Voloch and Solomon began wondering if their expertise could help patients like Voloch’s grandfather.

“When we realized we could make an impact, we made the difficult decision to stop our academic pursuits and start a new journey,” Solomon recalls. “That was the starting point for Immunai.”

Voloch and Solomon soon partnered with Immunai scientific co-founders Ansu Satpathy, a researcher at Stanford University at the time, and Danny Wells, a researcher at the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. Satpathy and Wells had shown that single-cell RNA sequencing could be used to gain insights into why patients respond differently to a common cancer treatment.

The team began analyzing single-cell RNA sequencing data published in scientific papers, trying to link common biomarkers with patient outcomes. Then they integrated data from the United Kingdom’s Biobank public health database, finding they were able to improve their models’ predictions. Soon they were incorporating data from hospitals, academic research institutions, and pharmaceutical companies, analyzing information about the structure, function, and environment of cells — multiomics — to get a clearer picture of immune activity.

“Single cell sequencing gives you metrics you can measure in thousands of cells, where you can look at 20,000 different genes, and those metrics give you an immune profile,” Solomon explains. “When you measure all of that over time, especially before and after getting therapy, and compare patients who do respond with patients who don’t, you can apply machine learning models to understand why.”

Those data and models make up AMICA, what Immunai calls the world’s largest cell-level immune knowledge base. AMICA stands for Annotated Multiomic Immune Cell Atlas. It analyzes single cell multiomic data from almost 10,000 patients and bulk-RNA data from 100,000 patients across more than 800 cell types and 500 diseases.

At the core of Immunai’s approach is a focus on the immune system, which other companies shy away from because of its complexity.

“We don't want to be like other groups that are studying mainly tumor microenvironments,” Solomon says. “We look at the immune system because the immune system is the common denominator. It’s the one system that is implicated in every disease, in your body’s response to everything that you encounter, whether it's a viral infection or bacterial infection or a drug that you are receiving — even how you are aging.”

Turning data into better treatments

Immunai has already partnered with some of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world to help them identify promising treatments and set up their clinical trials for success. Immunai's insights can help partners make critical decisions about treatment schedules, dosing, drug combinations, patient selection, and more.

“Everyone is talking about AI, but I think the most exciting aspect of the platform we have built is the fact that it's vertically integrated, from wet lab to computational modeling with multiple iterations,” Solomon says. “For example, we may do single-cell immune profiling of patient samples, then we upload that data to the cloud and our computational models come up with insights, and with those insights we do in vitro or in vivo validation to see if our models are right and iteratively improve them.”

Ultimately Immunai wants to enable a future where lab experiments can more reliably turn into impactful new recommendations and treatments for patients.

Scientists can cure nearly every type of cancer, but only in mice,” Solomon says. “In preclinical models we know how to cure cancer. In human beings, in most cases, we still don't. To overcome that, most scientists are looking for better ex vivo or in vivo models. Our approach is to be more agnostic as to the model system, but feed the machine with more and more data from multiple model systems. We’re demonstrating that our algorithms can repeatedly beat the top benchmarks in identifying the top preclinical immune features that match to patient outcomes.”

The source of this news is from Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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