The painstaking work of drug discovery may be getting a time-saving assist from the emerging field of artificial intelligence.
A tiny startup with Cambridge technology roots is harnessing AI to identify anti-aging drug candidates. But it has set up shop more than 3,000 miles away in the Silicon Valley city of San Carlos, Calif.
In a paper posted Thursday in the scientific journal Nature Aging, founders of Integrated Biosciences outline how they’ve combined synthetic biology with machine learning to rapidly accelerate screening for new drugs. Their approach scanned a chemical library of more than 800,000 compounds to find three with properties that enable them to kill so-called “zombie cells” implicated in age-related illnesses, from cancers and diabetes to cardiovascular and Alzheimer’s diseases.
“We’re trying to go after aging and aging-associated disorders,” said Felix Wong, a co-founder of Integrated Biosciences, who was the first author on the Nature Aging publication. “We all know loved ones who have suffered from some of these conditions.”
The company’s drug-screening technique raises hopes that AI can be deployed on a broader scale to speed up drug development. But it also raises concerns that the Boston area — while supplying much of the brainpower in biomedicine — could be overtaken in key niches as AI and anti-aging research clusters sprout on the West Coast.
Wong is a postdoctoral fellow in the MIT lab of synthetic biology pioneer Jim Collins, who chairs the scientific advisory board at Integrated Biosciences. While the lab’s work undergirds the company’s science, it started last year on the San Carlos campus of MBC Biolabs, a Bay Area biotech incubator that provided funding and free lab space. Another financial backer, Root Ventures, is based in San Francisco.
Several larger California biotechs are already immersed in research to slow the aging process, including Altos Labs, bankrolled by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. A Bay Area location lets Integrated Biosciences more easily tap into AI expertise on the West Coast, home to the high-tech giants that are fielding AI chat boxes and other digital tools. Cambridge vaccine maker Moderna disclosed Thursday it is opening a Seattle office, partly to help expand its AI capabilities.
Groundbreaking anti-aging research has also emerged in the Boston area, notably from the Harvard lab of biologist David Sinclair, as have startups seeking to commercialize it. And several biotechs, including AI Proteins in Andover and a pair of Flagship Pioneering startups, Cellarity and Generate Biomedicines in Somerville, are already using AI.
“The days are early in applying AI in biotechnology,” said Collins, who’s been involved in some of the local efforts. “Boston and Cambridge remain the world leader broadly in biotech... But in AI, the top advances are now coming largely from companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon, and they’re West Coast companies.”
As the use of AI is integrated into biopharma research, Collins believes a new generation of biotechs will emerge in both places, but biology will still drive drug development. Wong and other Integrated Biosciences employees are dividing their time between Cambridge and the Bay Area.
Wong wouldn’t say how much money Integrated Biosciences has raised in its seed round. And while the company has identified the three drug candidates, which it says are as good or better than other experimental medicines that also aim to slow aging, the company has yet to settle on which clinical indications it will target.
Because the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t classify aging as a disease, clinical studies must show experimental medicines that clear away senescent, or zombie, cells work safely and effectively to combat specific conditions such as diabetes or fibrosis.
The company’s scientists collaborated with the Collins lab and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard as well as the University of California at Santa Barbara lab of Max Wilson, an Integrated Biosciences co-founder, to identify a new class of senolytic compounds that are able to suppress aging processes. The compounds were then used as treatments to reduce the unwanted senescent cells in older mice.
Wong said his fledgling company has the potential not only to advance longevity research and develop life-extending drugs but also to refine a platform that accelerates all kinds of drug discovery.
“We’re not the traditional AI company,” he said. “But we can develop AI pipelines for biology.”
Robert Weisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.