For the past two years the founding team of Immunai had been working stealthily to develop a new technology to map the immune system of any patient.
Founded by Noam Solomon, a Harvard and MIT-educated postdoctoral researcher, and former Palantir engineer, Luis Voloch, Immunai was born from the two men’s interest in computational biology and systems engineering. When the two were introduced to Ansuman Satpathy, a professor of cancer immunology at Stanford University, and Danny Wells, who works as a data scientist at the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, the path forward for the company became clear.
“Together we said we bring the understanding of all the technology and machine learning that needs to be brought into the work and Ansu and Danny bring the single-cell biology,” said Solomon.
Now as the company unveils itself and the $20 million in financing it has received from investors including Viola Ventures and TLV Partners, it’s going to be making a hiring push and expanding its already robust research and development activities.
Immunai already boasts clinical partnerships with over ten medical centers and commercial partnerships with several biopharma companies, according to the company. And the team has already published peer-reviewed work on the origin of tumor-fighting T cells following PD-1 blockade, Immunai said.
“We are implementing a complicated engineering pipeline. We wanted to scale to hundreds of patients and thousands of samples,” said Wells. “Right now, in the world of cancer therapy, there are new drugs coming on the market that are called checkpoint inhibitors. [We’re] trying to understand how these molecules are working and find new combinations and new targets. We need to see the immune system in full granularity.”
That’s what Immunai’s combination of hardware and software allows researchers to do, said Wells. “It’s a vertically integrated platform for single cell profiling,” he said. “We go even further to figure out what the biology is there and figure that out in a new combination design for the trial.”
Cell therapies and cancer immunotherapies are changing the practice of medicine and offering new treatments for conditions, but given how complex the immune system is, the developers of those therapies have few insights into how their treatments will affect the immune system. Given the diversity of individual patients, variations in products can significantly change the way a patient will respond to the treatment, the company said.
Immunai has the potential to change the way these treatments are developed by using single-cell technologies to profile cells by generating over a terabyte of data from an individual blood sample. The company’s proprietary database and machine learnings tools map incoming data to different cell types and create profiles of immune responses based on differentiated elements. Finally, the database of immune profiles supports the discovery of biomarkers that can then be monitored for potential changes.
“Our mission is to map the immune system with neural networks and transfer learning techniques informed by deep immunology knowledge,” said Voloch, in a statement. “We developed the tools and know-how to help every immuno-oncology and cell therapy researcher excel at their job. This helps increase the speed in which drugs are developed and brought to market by elucidating their mechanisms of action and resistance.”
Pharmaceutical companies are already aware of the transformational potential of the technology, according to Solomon. The company is already in the process of finalizing a seven-figure contract from a Fortune 100 company, according to Solomon.
One of the company’s earliest research coups was using research to show the way that immune systems function when anti-PD1 molecules are introduced. Typically the presence of PD-1 means that T cell production is being suppressed. What the research from Immunai revealed was that the response wasn’t happening with T cells within the tumor. There were new T cells that were migrating to the tumor to fight it off, according to Wells.
“This whole approach that we have around looking at all of these indications — we believe that the right way and most powerful way to study these diseases is to look at the immune system from the top down,” said Voloch, in an interview. “Looking at all of these different scenarios. From the top, you see these patterns than wouldn’t be available otherwise.”