Cell mates: A Q&A with CEO’s of Cellarity & Abdul Latif Jameel Health
Abdul Latif Jameel Health announced its second major commercial partnership of the year in February 2021, participating in a US$ 123m Series B funding round for Cellarity, a cutting-edge US-based life sciences company. Cellarity, which was founded by Flagship Pioneering, is innovating a new approach to drug discovery by addressing disease at the level of the cell and not aimed at single molecular targets. This leads to a more complete understanding of system and network biology to uncover cell-behavior-targeted medicines for a wide variety of diseases.
Cellarity is generating unprecedented biological insights by combining its unique expertise in network biology, high-resolution data, and machine learning. The result is nothing short of revolutionary – a new understanding of the cell’s trajectory from health to disease, and importantly, how cells relate to one another within tissues. As the cell and its network of transcripts and proteins offer a more complete view of the complexity of human biology than any single individual molecular target, Cellarity’s approach allows for more efficient drug discovery and is designed to drive higher rates of clinical success.
We caught up with Fabrice Chouraqui, CEO of Cellarity, and Akram Bouchenaki, CEO of Abdul Latif Jameel Health, to discuss the science, the ambitions behind the new collaboration, and the opportunities they hope to explore.
Cellarity Can you summarize Cellarity’s work?
FC: We created Cellarity to pioneer a new generation of medicines that treat disease at the level of the cell, as opposed to targeting a single protein.
This cell-centric paradigm opens an entirely new dimension of drug discovery and gives us the opportunity to apply our approach across a broad portfolio of medicines.
What is innovative about this approach?
FC: Every disease is driven by identifiable cell behaviors. When you think about a disease, you often think about a malfunctioning organ or a malfunctioning tissue in that organ and the malfunctioning cells in that tissue. For example, the dysfunction of complex cells in lung tissue is one of the primary causes of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). Traditionally, the objective of drug discovery has been to find a therapeutic intervention that will affect those cells.
But cells are extremely complex . . . They are made of trillions of interacting molecules.
To date, the only way we have been able to influence the behavior of a certain cell is to find a protein, gene or pathway-based target. So, when we act on that very specific target, we expect to drive the cellular behavior reflective of a given disease. This is how drug discovery has worked for the past decade or more.
The problem is that by reducing a disease to just a single protein target, you make an assumption that this very complex disease can be reduced to just one molecule and its ability to affect that specific target, and by acting on that target you can reverse the course of the disease. But by doing so, you overlook the complexity of human biology, the interaction between those trillions of cells.
So, in 2017, the team behind Cellarity asked themselves if there was a way to work at a higher level than just a single molecular target and instead focus on the whole cell. Why the whole cell?
Because the cell is really the fundamental unit of life. By acting on the whole cell and not just a single molecular target, Cellarity aims to harness the full complexity of human biology.
Have people tried to do this before – or is it a whole new paradigm of therapeutic intervention?
Cellarity is the leading company pioneering this specific approach. There have been attempts to improve the efficiency of the current drug discovery paradigm by leveraging new techniques, such as single-cell sequencing, phenotypic based drug discovery or leveraging different applications of machine learning.
But our approach is totally different. We are leveraging a target agnostic approach operating at the level of the cell, incorporating a unique blend of network biology, high resolution data types, such as single-cell sequencing, and novel applications of machine learning to model disease and generate medicines that engender the underlying cellular mechanisms shifting diseased to health. We are pushing the boundaries of the science. We are integrating these new technologies to drive a new cell-centric paradigm to drug discovery, as opposed to this molecular target paradigm.
We have identified compounds that engender the desired changes at a cellular level computationally and validated through lab experimentation. We further optimize these compounds to ensure clinical translation and de-risk for things like safety. Today, nine out of ten drug discovery programs fail in a clinical context. Our approach is designed to drive much higher clinical success.
What role does technology and machine learning play in your research?
FC: It is very important. We are generating very high volumes of data that can explain biology in a way that has never been understood. This amount of data is far too big to be understood by the human brain.
We need AI and machine learning to give a meaning to the data we are generating out of our research.
Our augmented intelligence process integrates machines that do calculations and predictions on big data at super-human levels whilst integrating the scientific and clinical interpretation that humans do best. This multi-lingual machine/human approach to drug discovery has proven to be a game changer at Cellarity.
Are there particular types of illness and disease that this new paradigm is most suited to?
FC: The great thing is that this cell-centric approach to drug discovery can be applied to every disease. Every disease stems from a disorder at the cellular level. So, our approach can be applied to virtually every single disease. We are currently pursuing seven research programs in four very different but very common disease areas: immuno-oncology, metabolic diseases, respiratory, and blood disease – which demonstrates the breadth of the application of the platform.
How does the mission of Cellarity align with the vision of Abdul Latif Jameel Health?
FC: I’ve always seen the biotech industry as a bridge between science and society. Our mission at Cellarity is to constantly push the boundaries of science so we can uncover new, breakthrough treatments that can benefit patients.
The ultimate goal is for patients to be treated with the right treatment at the right time anywhere in the world, regardless of who they are or their level of disease. These are the kinds of impacts we are hoping to achieve and which tie into the goals of Abdul Latif Jameel Health. That’s what attracted us to this partnership. We want to work with a partner who believes in innovation and who is committed to using that innovation to benefit patients.
From the Abdul Latif Jameel Health perspective, what is it about Cellarity that fits into what you’re trying to achieve?
AB: As you know, Abdul Latif Jameel and Community Jameel have for many years had strong relationships with MIT, which itself has close links with Flagship Pioneering, the company behind Cellarity. So, we were aware of the ground-breaking work Cellarity is involved in. When we looked into it more closely, we immediately saw the unique opportunity and the exciting vision they have. There are two key points in particular. The first is that they are approaching drug discovery in a totally different way, which will lead to a very broad portfolio of medicines to treat a diverse spectrum of diseases. The second is the way in which Cellarity’s model, harnessing extremely cutting-edge technology, leads to incredible speed in drug discovery.
It normally takes decades of trial and error research, but the Cellarity platform can hugely shorten that process and provide a very high level of confidence in the drug discovery process very quickly. It will also lead to better, faster treatments that should also help reduce the costs involved in drug development and increase their availability in previously under-served markets.
How involved is Abdul Latif Jameel Health going to be in this partnership?
AB: We are an early-stage investor in the company, so we intend to work closely with the Cellarity team as they develop and grow in their drug development process. Our aim is to be a partner for the commercialization of their compounds as soon as they’re out in the clinic and maybe contribute to some clinical development in certain parts of the world. So, we’ve put the first stone in the ground, and we’re extremely hopeful that within a couple of years great things will start to happen.
How will this relationship help Cellarity achieve its objectives?
FC: Particularly during the development phase, I can see the footprint of Abdul Latif Jameel Health being of great value, such as conducting clinical trials or establishing connections with leading medical distributors in the Middle East, Africa, Turkey . . . and beyond.
Later, when we reach the commercialization phase, it could be hugely beneficial to have the support, expertise and experience of Abdul Latif Jameel Health in actually getting our drugs into these markets and benefiting patients as quickly as possible. Often, these countries are not priority markets for the big multinationals. There is a real need for organizations like Abdul Latif Jameel Health, which has an in-depth knowledge and understanding of these markets to make healthcare improvement and access to innovation a priority.
What are the biggest challenges you expect to face in pushing forward with your technology and getting these solutions to market?
FC: Our vision is to apply our platform across a broad range of disease areas, so our ability to build world-class expertise in these different peripatetic areas is a challenge, especially for a small company which is growing fast.
We are also working in uncharted territory. We are architecting an entirely new paradigm, an entirely new approach to drug discovery. There is no path for us to follow. We don’t have a benchmark, so we are setting our own benchmark. That is extremely exciting, but obviously, it’s also full of challenges on a daily basis.
The support of Abdul Latif Jameel Health will be precious in the continued development of the company.