Pharmacy Times continues our discussion with Anat Binur, PhD, Co-founder, CEO of Ukko, who discusses technology’s role in modulating the immune system to overcome allergies, along with the role of the pharmacist as an educator to patients.
PT Staff: How can artificial intelligence (AI) change the treatment landscape and timeline for patients with peanut (and other) allergies?
Anat Binur, PhD: I think first—excitingly—I think it’s a hopeful time for patients today. When we started Ukko some years back, there weren’t that many efforts out there. I think some of them were being initiated, but not so much spoken about. And it’s been great to see how many efforts are arising and startup starting to help patients. One of the challenges has been, in general, that in the case of treating allergy, usually we use the actual toxic allergen itself to treat allergy. But there’s a challenge—the curative compound is also the toxic compound (that thing you’re reacting to). That means it really puts you in a deadlock because it limits what you can do with patients. You are always in this safety and efficacy tradeoff. “I can’t pick the most effective route… If it’s too dangerous, I must go with small dosages.” It really creates challenges in creating an effective, safe, and patient-centered type of treatment.
So where does artificial intelligence (AI) come in? AI, and I’m going to generalize, but for Ukko specifically, we use AI for specific protein designers, like micro-engineering [which] allows us to go to a protein and ask ourselves, “What characteristics do we actually want this protein to have? How do we kind of get rid of the bad parts that we don’t want the protein to have?” They may be toxic or dangerous. “[How do we] keep the parts (let’s call it, for a simplified version, the good) that may be actually curative, helpful, or immunogenic for the patients?” So, in the case of food allergy, it really allows us to redesign the interaction of the immune system with the protein. The allergen itself, in a way, can be positive, [and] play out the positive parts without the toxicity in the big scheme of things. That’s the idea. When you look at the world, and can we look at food proteins and say, “How do we make them safe and healthy? Can we design them for the characteristics that we want?” The idea is that we would use our therapy, where the goal is for it to be safe (but also efficacious) for patients and modulate the immune system against the natural allergens. So, we should be able to reach the same results as potential immunotherapy today in the sense that you could walk around safely and not worry about accidental exposures, but the treatment will be easier for patients to undergo. And this is what we will have to show in human trials very soon.
PT Staff: How can pharmacists serve as an educational resource for patients with peanut allergies?
Anat Binur, PhD: I think pharmacists have an always have a really important role, because they’re the human interaction often between a patient and a plus and a possible treatment. So I think that they can really educate patients about both a potentially life threatening aspect of allergy. Some patients are not aware that this can actually be life threatening, and urge patients to go see an allergist, and kind of help guide the patient as they’re thinking through the different steps from the moment when they’re trying to realize whether what they’re experiencing could be an allergy and how to think about it, where they should go ask questions and try to diagnose all the way to, you know, the moment that they do get a certain treatment and go under a certain team and help them make sure that they’re going through it safely and answer questions and so on. I think, as in all cases, pharmacists can really play a very important and central role in this.
PT Staff: Closing thoughts?
Anat Binur, PhD: I think what’s unique about what we do is also that’s really based on a lot of patient data. So you know, we start our process by gathering patient samples from all over the world, we work with over 18 hospitals in Asia, Europe, and the us in this room, we have a huge blood sample bank, in our lab, and we use that in order to really understand allergy in depth in a way that can unlock information that no one else has. So that’s the first step of what we do. And then the platform that I described kicks in where we both predict and design and change proteins to achieve those characteristics that I described before. So I think for us, we’re extremely excited about the clinical trials that are coming up next year for our kina for our peanut asset for that’s the first half of the peanut allergy asset. And we’re already starting to work in on the next allergies in our pipeline. So hopefully, we’re one more example of why patients should really be hopeful about what living and managing food allergies can look like in the near future.