Hacking Our Immune Systems for Good

Written by Jürgen Eckhardt, Head of Leaps by Bayer

Proteins are the building blocks of the living world. These tiny, molecular machines, honed through billions of years of evolution, are the workhorses of biology that make life possible. Proteins can convert sunlight into sugar and transform toxic waste into harmless chemicals, and they help give foods their unique flavor, texture, and nutritional content. Harnessing the power of proteins and engineering them to work even better is the core idea behind the Bio Revolution.

What’s the Bio Revolution? As a recent McKinsey report describes, advances at the intersection of bioengineering, computing, and artificial intelligence are poised to transform our society. Since the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, our understanding of the living world has grown in leaps and bounds. Now, it’s becoming possible not just to understand biology, but to engineer it. We can make bacteria that produce crucial drugs like insulin or the malaria drug artemisinin, and we can engineer plants that are more pest-resistant and drought-tolerant to help humanity survive in a changing world. Biology is the silicon of the 21st century, and it will power our next generation of innovations.

At Leaps by Bayer, we uncover opportunities to invest in platform technologies that make it easier to harness the power of the living world. By solving fundamental challenges in bioengineering and synthetic biology, the companies we invest in are poised to transform a range of applications that span our core fields of business, including health and agriculture.

A perfect example of this transformative approach is our recent investment in Ukko, a Tel Aviv-based company that is using cutting-edge technologies in immunology and computational biology to improve protein engineering. Recently, AI has revolutionized our understanding of protein structure, which is intimately bound up with what proteins do. For decades, it has been tremendously difficult to predict the 3D structures of these tiny molecular machines from their genetic sequences. But Google’s DeepMind group, which made the program AlphaGo, released a program last year that used deep learning to predict these structures with unprecedented accuracy, rivaling the precision of much more laborious experimental techniques. These advances open a world of new possibilities for understanding how tinkering with a protein’s building blocks will change how it works — which is where Ukko comes in.

Ukko uses a novel, AI-driven platform for protein engineering that analyzes the gears and levers of these molecular machines and finds ways to tweak them for the better. To start, Ukko is working to redesign proteins that cause common food allergies. Our immune systems do a remarkable job of protecting us from harmful bacteria and viruses, but sometimes, these defenses go into overdrive against harmless proteins in our diets. Food allergies are a serious problem. We all have friends and family members who suffer from food allergies, which affect about 1 in every 13 children in the United States, and in some cases, these allergies can cause life-threatening, anaphylactic reactions. What’s more, cases of food allergies seem to be on the rise: new cases of celiac disease have been doubling every fifteen years. Building a more sustainable global food supply will require us to engineer crops that serve the world’s nutritional needs.

The team at Ukko aims to preserve the nutritious qualities of our food staples while tweaking their protein building blocks to avoid triggering our immune defenses. Ukko is currently working on two main products. First, to address the increasing frequency of gluten sensitivity, they are engineering a version of gluten proteins that are specially designed for people with celiac. These proteins will maintain all their “good” biophysical and biochemical properties so that they can be used to bake bread, pizza, pasta equal to the regular kind. Second, Ukko is designing peanut proteins that could be used as a next-generation immunotherapy to help the most severe allergy sufferers increase their peanut tolerance. These products are currently moving towards clinical trials, and Ukko hopes they will eventually help millions of people live safer, more nutritious lives.

We’re inspired by the work at Ukko because it is poised to advance two of our Leaps. By removing barriers to some of the world’s most important plant-based proteins, Ukko makes crucial progress towards Leap 8, which aims to develop a sustainable protein supply. And by engineering hypoallergenic versions of common proteins, Ukko helps advance our goal in Leap 6 of reversing immune and autoimmune diseases.

And food allergies are just the start. The technology platform at Ukko is a huge step toward precise, micro protein design engineering, which has the potential to transform the broader fields of health and agriculture and address some of the biggest challenges of the 21st century. Learning to reprogram and redesign nature’s molecular machines will make the Bio Revolution a reality. Our team at Leaps and portfolio companies are thrilled to play our part.