How a start-up has found a dozen treatments for rare diseases using robots

How a start-up has found a dozen treatments for rare diseases using robots
How a start-up has found a dozen treatments for rare diseases using robots

That kind of weekly iteration — as well as the ability to rapidly scale its operation — more closely resembles a tech start-up than a biotech firm. "From the end of the day Friday through Monday morning, the robots are taking images of the tens of thousands of experiments we ran during the previous week," Gibson says. "By Monday morning the data science team is already making adjustments to the next week's experiments based on the previous week's findings. That kind of cycle time is not present in the life sciences in general, especially when you're talking about experiments at scale. It's much more of a tech approach that we've applied to the life sciences space."

Though Recursion has yet to deliver its first treatment to market — a critical test of its approach and technology — the company is closing in. Aside from the 15 potential treatments already moving through its pipeline toward clinical trials, Gibson says Recursion's technology regularly hits on a potential treatment for a disease, only to find that a large pharmaceutical company already has a similar drug in clinical trials.

"That's happening often enough that it's frustrating from a business perspective but also reassuring from a scientific perspective," he says. "We're finding things that have taken our peers a very, very long time to identify accurately in a much easier and more rapid way."

Finding new applications for existing drugs is the low-hanging fruit for Recursion, Gibson says. The real value in its technology stems from the fact that the method of experimentation isn't confined solely to rare diseases. Computer vision and machine-learning technology like Recursion's could be tweaked fairly seamlessly to explore for treatments beyond genetic disorders — for inflammation, for instance — by making relatively painless changes to the way the experiments are prepared. But the process for generating and analyzing the images — the key to Recursion's rapid-fire, high-throughput approach to drug research — would remain largely unchanged.

For now, the company remains focused on rare diseases as a means to hone its technology while building the world's largest and richest database of cellular imagery. The image-based process, Gibson says, is inexpensive enough and high-volume enough that Recursion has begun amassing one of the world's most high-resolution, comprehensive biological data sets — what he terms a "map of human cellular biology." Going forward, that will allow researchers to develop treatments for conditions affecting smaller and smaller populations, eventually tailoring treatments to even the rarest diseases.

"If you start to understand the network of cellular biology, I think that positions us to be in a really, really enviable spot in terms of doing precision biology in the future," he says.

— By Clay Dillow, special to CNBC.com

CNBC

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