Ukko raises $40 million to address food allergies with AI

Ukko, a 30-employee biotech company using AI to investigate solutions for food allergies and sensitivities, today raised $40 million in series B funding led by Bayer’s Leaps by Bayer. The company says the new funding will allow it to enter clinical trials with an investigational therapeutic for peanut allergies while accelerating development of Ukko’s synthetic gluten designed for people with celiac and other disorders.

Food intolerances and sensitivities are extremely common and appear to be on the rise. In fact, it’s thought that up to 20% of the world’s population may have at least one food intolerance. By one estimate, roughly 6% to 7% of the U.S. population may be gluten-sensitive, for example, meaning that some 20 million people in the U.S. alone could have the condition. That’s perhaps why the global food allergy diagnosis and treatment market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 5.10% to reach 1.83 billion by 2023, according to Market Research Future.

Palo Alto, California-based Ukko, which was cofounded in 2016 by MIT graduate Anat Binur and Yanay Ofran, formerly a Columbia research fellow, aims to apply machine learning technologies in immunology, computational biology, and protein engineering to develop new approaches to treating food sensitivities. The startup is currently building a map of the molecular structure of food allergies and disorders, which it says will enable it to engineer food proteins, eliminating their allergenicity while keeping “good” biochemical and nutritional characteristics intact.

“[Ukko] analyzes millions of antibodies from the blood of people with allergies. Our algorithms use these data to predict what in the peanut protein is triggering the allergic attack by the immune system,” a spokesperson told VentureBeat via email. “Similarly, we analyze millions of immune cells from children with gluten sensitivity to model the exact fragment of the gluten that trigger the attack of the immune system. After we identify the triggers, the elements on the proteins that are recognized by the immune system, we use algorithms to search for ways to minimally alter these elements in a way that will abrogate the binding of the immune system but will otherwise maintain the structure, function and overall traits of the proteins. This is done using algorithms that relate the sequence of the food protein to its structure and function.”

A number of companies are in the process of developing technologies that address food sensitivities. In 2015, AbbVie paid for an option to acquire the rights to a drug that consists of enzymes meant to break down gluten before it can cause a reaction in the small intestine. BioLineRx is testing a polymer that binds to a key part of the gluten protein, preventing it from being absorbed by the body. And Alba Therapeutics has completed midstage trials of a drug — larazotide acetate — that reportedly prevents gluten from squeezing between cell linings and setting off an inflammatory reaction.

For its part, Ukko says it’s working on improved gluten proteins specifically designed for people with celiac and other gluten sensitivities. On the therapeutic side, the company is using its protein design platform to develop an investigational therapy for peanut allergies, with plans to address
additional food allergens down the line.

Ukko claims to have preliminary data that suggests its investigational peanut and gluten proteins don’t trigger immune system allergic reactions. But the company has yet to complete a clinical trial or gain approval for its products from a regulatory agency, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Binur says that Ukko is “committed to working closely” with the FDA and following “all applicable regulations” prior to marketing its food or therapeutics. “We are at the forefront of a revolution. Pharma and the food industry will redefine how they think about their products and missions,” he said in a statement. “Hundreds of millions of people around the world suffer from food allergies and experts see it as a global epidemic. Ending food allergy is critical and is only the beginning. Ukko’s tech has the potential to leverage science and human data to redesign our food and medicine.”

Continental Grain Company, PeakBridge Ventures, Skyviews Life Science, and Fall Line Capital as well as existing investors Khosla Ventures, Innovation Endeavors, and Time Ventures participated in Ukko’s latest funding round. It brings the company’s total raised to date to nearly $50 million.


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