Recursion Pharmaceuticals

Recursion Pharmaceuticals' office

Revolutionizing Drug Discovery

U-spinout Recursion Pharmaceuticals made waves in the drug industry in 2014 for announcing that they would develop 100 drugs in 10 years. The skepticism surrounding this claim comes primarily from the fact that such a number would be a major achievement for even the largest of the Big Pharma companies, let alone a new U spinout.

Despite the criticism, the company defends this number: “We’re going to bring 100 existing drugs to the market for a new indication,” explains Christopher C. Gibson, Ph.D., inventor, co-founder, and CEO of Recursion. “These are drugs that have already undergone successful safety trials but failed for their initial purpose. By partnering with large pharmaceutical companies who posses many such drugs, we’ll also draw on their extensive capabilities to conduct and finance the clinical trials. So the more accurate description will be that we will develop 100 repurposed treatments in 10 years.”

Chris Gibson, co-founder and CEO, Recursion

Gibson explains that such a claim has only been made possible because of recent advances in technology, particularly technology that Recursion has adapted to biotechnology or cultivated itself: “We have developed advanced algorithms and disease modeling techniques that will allow us to significantly scale drug repurposing,” he explains. “These advances allow us to bypass the traditional drug discovery model and turn drug discovery into a data-science problem. We no longer need to understand how a disease works; we just need to know its cause, which in the case of genetic diseases is now often clear. Our approach allows us to rapidly identify new ways to use old drugs to treat the disease.”

Traditional Treatment Development

The traditional route for finding an effective drug treatment for a disease begins by first spending years studying the biological mechanisms behind it. Once an understanding of the disease is achieved, drug candidates are developed and tested. When a lead compound has been chosen, the drug enters a costly, time-consuming process in which it is tested in a lab, then in animals, and then in humans in multiple phases. Altogether, the journey takes roughly 10-15 years and costs tens of millions to billions of dollars. By the time this rigorous protocol has been exhausted, 95 percent of these medicines will have been found to be ineffective for their intended purpose, never making it to market.

Focusing on Orphan Diseases

The high cost of developing therapeutics is a major reason why most pharmaceutical companies focus their efforts on conditions that affect a large number of people. Simply put, to recoup development costs and turn a profit, the cost of drugs needs to be spread out over a broad population to make it affordable, otherwise the cost per person would be too great.

This system has meant that hundreds of millions of people suffering from 5,000+ rare genetic diseases, also known as orphan diseases, have been mostly ignored by the industry until the last few decades. “There will often be too few patients for any one rare disease to justify the cost of a traditional drug discovery program,” explains Gibson.

But as Dean Li, M.D., Ph.D., CSO for the U Health Sciences, and co-founder of Recursion, explains, “When you say that rare diseases are truly rare, as a group they’re not rare at all. We’re talking about 10 percent of our population. The question is, how do you actually begin to view that population as a group that you can effectively develop medicines for?”

The answer to this question is the driving force behind Recursion. Thousands of people with orphan diseases are told each year that there is nothing that can be done for them. Recursion believes that it can cost effectively and expeditiously develop drug treatments for rare genetic disorders. “Our model and our focus on rare disease may allow some repurposed drugs to hit the market in one to two years, rather than the traditional 10 to 15,” Gibson explains.

The Recursion Model

In response to the deficiencies of the traditional path to drug discovery, Recursion looks for known drugs and shelved pharmaceutical assets that could be recycled as possible treatments for rare genetic diseases. With their novel drug-screening platform, the company combines experimental biology and bioinformatics in a massively parallel system to quickly and efficiently identify treatments for multiple orphan diseases. They can simultaneously study many diseases and thousands of potential treatments by combining microfluidics on the experimental side and advanced algorithms on the data side.

In this image from Recursion’s process, the left picture contains untreated cells while the right one contains cells treated with digoxin, an off-patent medication. After treatment, various cellular components such as the nuclei and the endoplasm reticulum are “painted” with various fluorescent probes to track changes.

“Our platform recognizes thousands of structural changes in tens of thousands of human cells for each disease we model, and then identifies drugs that return those diseased cells to normal,” explains Gibson. “At its foundation, this approach, called ‘phenotypic screening’, is how the majority of new drugs were discovered, but we’ve used advances in biological tools, robotics, and computational technology to take this approach to its most high-efficiency cutting-edge level.”

Partnering with Big Pharma

Large pharmaceutical companies own most of the shelved assets Recursion intends to use. “These companies would like to see the billions of dollars they spent on these medicines not to go waste,” explains Gibson. “If we can identify ways to monetize these drugs, the partnership will be a win-win for everyone involved – especially patients.”

“Not only is this an opportunity for new drugs to enter the market, it’s also a chance to help millions of people with orphan diseases who have never had any hopeful options before.”

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