An AI approach to malaria

Gates Foundation grant to fund work by Recursion and UC San Diego in malaria treatment discovery

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SALT LAKE CITY—The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded a grant to Recursion Pharmaceuticals worth $546,000 to support collaborative work between Recursion and the Winzeler Lab at the School of Medicine of the University of California, San Diego. Recursion will be working with the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Winzeler, a professor of pharmacology and drug discovery in the Department of Pediatrics at the UC San Diego School of Medicine, in an effort to advance efforts to discover antimalarial drugs through the application of Recursion’s AI-enabled technology platform.
“A number of different potential drugs have been identified over the years that could be treatments for malaria,” Dr. Ron Alfa, vice president of discovery and product at Recursion, tells DDNews. “We’re working with the Winzeler lab to look at those drugs in our platform to understand potential mechanisms by which they might be acting, on one hand, and to try to predict what the best drugs might be from that set of compounds. We’re also working to identify potential new compounds.
“We’re going to evaluate all these potential therapeutics in our platform, and then from what we’re able to prioritize internally, we will hand those back to the Winzeler lab—who is really a world leader in malaria research—and they will verify some of those findings and test the molecules further in models that they’ve developed themselves in their lab.”
The Winzeler lab, as noted on its website, focuses on “comprehensive whole genome sequencing approaches and genomics to find novel drug targets and genes involved in pathogen drug resistance.” In addition to the basic project funding, this Gates Foundation grant includes a sub-award to Winzeler.
“This grant is further evidence of the deepening commitment by key parties to eradicate infectious diseases in general and malaria in particular,” Winzeler commented in a statement. “By working together, leveraging our particular strengths and expertise, we can make a powerful and productive combination.”
This is not the only recent news for the Winzeler lab in malaria research efforts. In January, the lab, together with other institutions, applied whole-genome analyses and chemogenetics to identify new drug targets and resistance genes in 262 parasite lines of Plasmodium falciparum that display resistance to 37 antimalarial compounds. P. falciparum is the culprit responsible for nearly 50 percent of all malaria cases.
Alfa says that this partnership with the Winzeler lab is a unique opportunity for Recursion’s platform, given that “We can not only test whether a drug is effective against the malaria parasite, but we can also tell whether a potential drug is effective in reversing the features of malaria on the cells themselves.” The platform has generated nearly a petabyte of data from hundreds of experiments, he explains, and by comparing that data, Recursion can narrow in on pathways or mechanisms of action that drugs are acting upon.
“AI can really revolutionize every step in the drug discovery process, beginning with the early discovery process and screening, but advancing even towards clinical development,” he notes. “We’re already seeing large pharmaceutical companies taking an interest in implementing machine learning technology at each of these stages. So it’s something that is certainly coming in some regards, but to a large extent these approaches are in place, being developed actively by many of the leaders in the field.
“There are very few examples of industries which artificial intelligence hasn’t impacted thus far, and pharmaceutical development is just another one in a line of industries where machine learning, artificial intelligence techniques, are really going to help—both accelerating the drug development process, but also decreasing the cost.”
“Infectious diseases are extremely burdensome. Malaria alone affects hundreds of millions of people every year, and causes almost half a million deaths annually,” added Dr. Yolanda Chong, vice president of biology at Recursion. “A safe treatment that truly eliminates malaria would have an immense impact. That impact will only increase as we pursue treatments for additional infectious diseases. We are honored to undertake this project and are grateful for the opportunity to begin our work in infectious disease on such an important problem.”
Recursion is aiming to discover 100 new treatments by 2025, and beginning with this effort, intends to expand into drug discovery in numerous infectious disease indications moving forward. As for whether those treatments will be partnered with other companies or advanced in-house, Alfa says that the company is “heavily focused on partnerships” at present. This allows Recursion to scale up the amount of work it’s doing, he explains, adding that “As we begin to advance our approaches forward in the pipeline, we’ll almost certainly begin to take these compounds closer and closer to the clinic on our own. In fact, we are filing our first IND for our first program, which is a treatment for a disease called cerebral cavernous malformation, in the next couple months.”

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