Innovation That Matters

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Using AI to eliminate protein allergies

Food & Drink

Manipulated amino acids keep the helpful part of a protein while eliminating the allergen

Spotted: In western countries, peanut allergies affect approximately 2 per cent of the population. And they are increasing in prevalence. Now, biotech startup Ukko – founded by Professor Yanay Ofran and Dr. Anat Binur – has used a combination of patient samples, computational biology, immunology, and protein engineering to create a potentially revolutionary peanut allergy treatment.

Today, despite the increasing prevalence of allergies, those who suffer from them have limited options. According to Dr. Binur, “While there are a lot of efforts here, there’s really one treatment that’s available for people with food allergies today that’s FDA approved”. This approach, called food allergy immunotherapy, involves exposing patients to extremely tiny doses of the allergen to lower their immune reaction. While this treatment has been life-changing for many, it is not without its challenges. This is because the curative protein it uses is the same toxic one that provokes the allergy. As a result, there is a trade-off between the effectiveness of the therapy and safety. Patients can only receive a limited number of doses in a given period, which stretches out the treatment, leading to higher drop-out rates, prolonged side effects, and lower efficacy.

Ukko’s new therapeutic, by contrast, was developed through a platform that separates out the toxic elements of the protein from the curative ones. This breaks the safety-efficacy trade-off as it removes the risks inherent in handling a toxic substance. This, in turn, leads to a better patient experience, an easier standalone treatment, and – ultimately – a safer, more effective therapy.

The company’s computational protein design platform – which has been extensively validated on hundreds of patient samples and through tests on mice – uses artificial intelligence (AI) to predict the exact changes to a protein that are needed to achieve the desired characteristics. The proteins can then be precision-engineered to keep the useful elements and remove the harmful ones. And although peanut allergies are the initial area of focus for Ukko – with the company’s peanut therapeutic set to reach clinical trials in the next year – the startup has plans to apply its platform to any allergenic protein.

As Springwise has spotted, biotechnology is shaping many industries, with molecular-level innovation making it possible to grow cultured meat from 3D-printed edible ink, and new types of microorganisms designed to target disease-causing proteins.  

Written By: Keely Khoury



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