Cancer startup Anixa teams up with machine learning firm to seek out COVID-19 hopefuls

After delaying a CAR-T test and with time on its hands, Anixa Biosciences is working with Germany-based computational company OntoChem to find new antiviral meds for COVID-19.

It’s all very early-stage, but the pair hopes to tap into experimental antivirals in a speedy way to try to help kill off or at least dampen SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Anixa is best known as an immuno-oncology company working on CAR-T programs, though one was delayed by around a year in December so it could try to boost the efficacy of its therapy.

But while cancer remains its focus, the biotech said, without a hint of modesty, that “its nimble and flexible capital efficient business model, enables it to effectively address new critical unmet needs such as this dynamic pandemic.” It is also led by Amit Kumar, M.D., who the biotech says helped work on the SARS virus that emerged in 2003. 

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“There are a number of drugs that are either in, or will shortly be in, clinical trials against COVID-19,” Kumar explained. “While we unquestionably hope one or more of those drugs is successful, we must note that all those drugs were developed for other viruses and other diseases. 

“During this very acute pandemic, it's expected that previously developed molecules will be tried, to quickly determine if something is effective. However, we believe that newly designed drugs that are purposefully developed to specifically target SARS-CoV-2, enabled by the recent studies of the molecular biology of this virus, will have the potential to be far more effective than hoping to get lucky with a repurposed drug. 

“Therefore we are initiating this program to identify drugs that may have much greater efficacy. Additionally, the research plan is designed to identify compounds that might have efficacy not only against SARS-CoV-2, but other similar viral diseases as well.”

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Lutz Weber, Ph.D., president and CEO of OntoChem, added: “The discovery of investigational drug candidates can ordinarily take several years. However, through this collaboration, we anticipate identifying multiple drug candidates in as little as six months’ time. To do this, we will utilize advanced computational methods, machine learning and molecular modeling techniques to perform in silico screening of over 1.2 billion compounds to evaluate if any could disrupt one of two key enzymes of the virus. 

“After identifying key compounds, we will have them synthesized and evaluated in biological and cellular assays to assess their potency.  Following that work, we hope to have a small number of candidates that can be taken into animal studies.”

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The Anixa-OntoChem COVID-19 program will focus on two specific proteins of the coronavirus: The first protein is the main protease, Mpro, an enzyme of the virus that severs a large polypeptide into functional proteins that enable it to replicate in a human host. 

The program will attempt to identify molecules that inhibit the function of this enzyme and potentially stop or slow down the virus’s ability to replicate. 

The second target is an endoribonuclease that plays a role in breaking up the the genetic content of the virus.