Sam Cooper, Phenomic AI

Jim Al­li­son and Pam Shar­ma back a Cana­di­an AI up­start seek­ing to solve the tu­mor stro­ma puz­zle

Jim Al­li­son

A new com­pa­ny out of Toron­to is seek­ing to put AI and ma­chine learn­ing to the test, us­ing the ad­vanced tech­nol­o­gy to iden­ti­fy tar­gets in sol­id can­cers and oth­er chal­leng­ing dis­eases. And it has the back­ing of the in­dus­try’s res­i­dent pow­er cou­ple.

Phe­nom­ic AI of­fi­cial­ly launched Wednes­day with $6 mil­lion in seed fund­ing and an­nounced that Jim Al­li­son and Pam Shar­ma have joined its sci­en­tif­ic ad­vi­so­ry board. The biotech is al­so bring­ing on new CSO Mike Briskin, who has a pro­fes­sion­al his­to­ry with Al­li­son and Shar­ma af­ter work­ing with them and Third Rock Ven­tures to found Jounce Ther­a­peu­tics about a decade ago.

“We’ve been close over the years ever since we start­ed Jounce,” Briskin said. “We start­ed talk­ing about dif­fer­ent ar­eas to move in­to be­yond the T cell … they’ve seen some of the da­ta from some of their col­leagues at MD An­der­son, and they re­al­ly felt like this was some­thing that was worth be­ing in­volved in.”

Pad­ma­nee Shar­ma

Fi­nanc­ing was led by CTI and joined by AV8, Lu­mi­nous and Vi­va BioIn­no­va­tor. Cur­rent in­vestors Garage Cap­i­tal, Hike and Can­tos al­so joined the round.

The com­pa­ny is plan­ning on us­ing its plat­form not on­ly for drug de­vel­op­ment, but to re­search how dif­fer­ent cells act in dis­ease states, main­ly the tu­mor stro­ma. A part of the mi­croen­vi­ron­ment present in sol­id tu­mors, the stro­ma es­sen­tial­ly acts as a bar­ri­er that pre­vents a body’s im­mune sys­tem from at­tack­ing the tu­mor.

Ba­si­cal­ly, the hu­man body builds a wall to pro­tect it­self from the tu­mor, but the tu­mor then hi­jacks the wall and in­stalls its own army to keep the im­mune sys­tem out, CEO Sam Coop­er said.

“That’s re­al­ly what we’re up against, not just a brick wall but a brick wall filled with sol­diers that are fight­ing off every­thing we’re throw­ing at it,” Coop­er said. “What’s ob­vi­ous­ly clear in can­cer though is that you’ve got dif­fer­ent walls in dif­fer­ent pa­tients, there’s no sim­ple way of do­ing this.”

Mike Briskin

While the func­tion of the stro­ma has been known for some time, Briskin said, on­ly re­cent­ly did re­search come about sug­gest­ing that it’s al­so in­volved in some cell-to-cell in­ter­ac­tions and im­mune re­spons­es, such as sig­nal­ing to T cells to stay away from tu­mors. One of Phe­nom­ic’s goals is to de­vel­op drugs that don’t re­quire im­mune sys­tem re­pres­sion in or­der to break the cy­cle of those in­ter­ac­tions.

That’s where the com­pa­ny’s AI plat­form comes in­to play. Through its tech­nol­o­gy, Coop­er said Phe­nom­ic is ca­pa­ble of mod­el­ing how cells and stro­ma com­mu­ni­cate with each oth­er. Then, re­searchers ex­tract “high-di­men­sion­al read­outs” from the mod­els to de­ter­mine what the cells are do­ing and re­late it back to how a tar­get is af­fect­ed.

“This is all too dif­fi­cult to process at scale as a per­son,” Coop­er said. “Where be­fore you had a mash of dif­fer­ent cells and you’ve got no idea of what’s re­al­ly hap­pen­ing, now we can say this in­di­vid­ual cell is sup­press­ing a T cell and pre­vent­ing it from get­ting to the can­cer. And then we can tar­get that with drugs.”

Phe­nom­ic isn’t dis­clos­ing its ini­tial two tar­gets just yet, but Coop­er said the com­pa­ny’s drug can­di­dates will be fo­cused around can­cer as­so­ci­at­ed fi­brob­lasts, or CAFs. Can­cers that show the least re­sponse to im­mune ther­a­pies typ­i­cal­ly have high­er stro­mal con­tent, and Phe­nom­ic is hop­ing that at­tack­ing the CAFs may prove piv­otal for new­er drug can­di­dates.

If all goes well, Phe­nom­ic won’t be pro­duc­ing typ­i­cal check­point in­hibitor drugs. In fact, Coop­er said that due to the re­al­i­ty of can­cer, they may sign on ex­ist­ing in­hibitors to use in com­bi­na­tion with an an­ti-stro­mal com­pound.

Ul­ti­mate­ly, the com­pa­ny was in­spired by Al­li­son’s work. Should their even­tu­al drugs con­vert im­mune ther­a­py-re­sis­tant tu­mors in­to those that can be treat­ed, if even a lit­tle bit, Phe­nom­ic will con­sid­er that a suc­cess.

“The rev­o­lu­tion in this field at the start was Jim Al­li­son’s il­lus­tra­tion of us­ing a check­point in­hibitor in metasta­t­ic melanoma, re­sult­ing in what in turn were long-term re­spons­es,” Briskin said. “You can see that now in some of these pa­tients, and our goal is to ex­tend those ben­e­fits to a greater num­ber of pa­tients.”

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