Israeli startup uses space biology to better treat cancer

While most biotech companies focus on the molecular biology aspect and study the composition and structure of molecules in cells, an Israeli startup claims to have found the solution by combining artificial intelligence, big data and computational biology . Nucleai is interested in the spatial aspect, or the way in which molecules are arranged inside human cell tissue in a 2D context. Four years ago, Avi Veidman, co-founder and CEO, started the company, alongside COO Eliron Amir and Lotan Chorev after the trio served together in the Israeli intelligence service. Nucleai’s software uses computer vision and machine learning algorithms to predict the progression of cancerous tumors as well as predict the responses of each patient’s immune system to find the most effective treatment.

From satellites to cancer cells

Veidman shared the story of Nucleai’s birth. While in the intelligence corps, he worked in a defense department that used satellites to monitor enemy infiltrations across Israel’s borders. “I went from looking for bad guys in satellite images to looking for bad guys in cancer cells,” he joked. And around the same time he was leaving defense, his father needed an urgent biopsy. When Veidman spoke with medical professionals, he was surprised and shocked to learn that it could take a month for these results to be obtained. “I was wondering why we couldn’t just create an algorithm and use a computer to find these cells,” he told CTech in an interview. Currently, in biopsies, doctors take a very small slice of tissue and send it to a pathologist for analysis, who uses a microscope to locate cancer cells. This process, relayed Veidman, is totally outdated and was a market in need of disruption. And after developing software to automatically analyze satellite images, he wondered why the trio couldn’t do the same with cancer cells. “We wanted to create a startup, but one that was working on something noble,” he said. And that’s how Nucleai was born.

The Nucleai team. Photo: David Grob

Although science has advanced since the sequencing of the human genome, there is still a fundamental lack of understanding why some patients respond to various drugs and others do not. “On average, only one in three patients will respond to new cancer drugs,” added Veidman. Nucleai’s platform, he explained, uses spatial biology methods as well as genomic data to find where cancer cells are in human cells in order to target them more precisely. Simultaneously, Nucleai is working with several large pharmaceutical companies to use its platform and thus develop better drugs. “We recommend that cancer patients enroll in clinical trials, and as they progress we can help pharmaceutical companies better develop these drugs, using screening criteria and companion diagnostics. “, did he declare. Doctors can then prescribe drugs that are best suited to each patient using data obtained from the Nucleai platform.

Pioneering biology

Nucleai’s algorithms predict the progression of cancerous tumors by analyzing the stroma (or tissue) and examining where cancer cells are located or scattered within the cell, and how they interact with other healthy human cells. Specifically, it examines and analyzes immune cells (T cells) and cancer cells and their interactions, plots them later, and provides a detailed worksheet of each part of the stroma in an organized manner, listing all the categories and characteristics of all. cells in a certain area. Nucleai trained his algorithm using earlier data sets he obtained from various hospitals. Recently, it signed strategic partnerships to share even more data with medical centers in the United States and Israel, including Sheba, Rambam and Kaplan Medical Centers, Clalit (Israel’s largest HMO), Jefferson Medical Center in West Virginia and the University of Pennsylvania. . This will allow the company to access an even greater amount of pathology slides and clinical data that can be used to refine the algorithms.

“Our platform finds a ‘fingerprint’ that describes a certain population of people who would respond to a drug by comparing facts as well as listing data on those who don’t. Precision medicine can help identify certain factors that can help treat people individually, while traditional medicine cannot. Our platform really adds value to personalized treatment, ”he said. And this space biology transcriptomics method was named New Age and New Revolution Biotechnology Method of the Year by the prestigious scientific journal Nature in 2020, making it a promising field for biotechnology companies in the world. which to innovate. underutilized, and we’re bringing it to the forefront of precision medicine through our platform. We enable pharmaceutical companies to develop a higher likelihood of success and help patients get the right treatment at the right time.

Cancer cells (stained dark purple) are visible on this slide using the Nucleai platform.  Photo: Nucléai Cancer cells (stained dark purple) are visible on this slide using the Nucleai platform. Photo: Nucléai

The platform works to analyze many types of cancer, including lung, gastrointestinal, cervical, breast, prostate, urethra, and skin cancers. Part of what makes the platform so pioneering is the fact that it works directly with pharmaceutical companies in their early stages of development and supports them later when they conduct clinical trials before attempting to obtain the FDA approval. “They show us which patients have responded to a new drug and which have not. They then upload those slides to our platform, which further helps ‘train’ our algorithm, ”he said. So far, Nucleai has also partnered with 10 pharmaceutical companies such as Merck & Co., Inc. and Debiopharm Group. When the drug becomes available and used in hospitals, doctors can check whether it is suitable for a certain patient and upload their results to the Nucleai platform. In this way, there is a constant flow of data between drug research and development and the actual treatment of patients in real time, he noted.

Leading investors

So far, the company has raised $ 15 million in two rounds of funding, including via seed and Series A from leading investors, Debiopharm, a Swiss pharmaceutical group, and Israeli venture capital funds. , Vertex Ventures, Grove Ventures and the Chinese company Fusun RZ. Capital city. Nucleai is also on the cusp of concluding a Series B round with many high profile undisclosed investors in the United States. Based in Tel Aviv, the company also has a commercial arm in Chicago and plans to open branches in Boston and the Bay Area. Its multidisciplinary teams include artificial intelligence specialists, software engineers, computer biologists, as well as salespeople and salespeople. As for gender diversity, Veidman noted that the company employs several women in its technical teams. “Diversity brings a lot of value to our business, especially having different opinions, and really enriches our knowledge and makes us much better and stronger as a business. “

And the uniqueness of this technology can be particularly applied to Israel, which has a centralized healthcare system with a long history of electronic medical records, allowing easier access for companies such as Nucleai. “We have access to unique and huge amounts of data that allow us to develop a more generalized model,” he said. Currently, Nucleai is working with a few undisclosed pharmaceutical companies on various Phase 2 and 3 clinical trials for the treatment of non-small cell lung, breast and cervical cancers. “At the end of the day, having these kinds of tools within our health system will allow us to find the right treatments for patients and save lives,” he reiterated.

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