Flagship company Cellarity takes aim at cell behavior

Flagship Pioneering office
Cellarity was founded in 2017 and spent two years in the Flagship Labs foundry. (Flagship Pioneering)

Traditional drug discovery, says Flagship Pioneering partner Avak Kahvejian, Ph.D., tends to be two-dimensional. It reduces complex biology to a target of interest and focuses on developing molecules to hit that target. By targeting cell behavior rather than the “smoking gun” of a specific pathway, Flagship’s latest company, Cellarity, is aiming more broadly. 

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup is combining artificial intelligence, a protein discovery platform and what it calls “network biology” in a drug discovery approach that it thinks will “dramatically improve” the success rate and the efficacy of drugs, as well as reduce side effects and shorten a drug’s journey to the clinic and to market, Kahvejian, CEO of Cellarity, told FierceBiotech. 

“We’re not reducing dimensionality to one drug or one target. We are looking at an N-dimensional network of behaviors of the cell, using that to understand disease and health and using that to decide what drugs to generate and how to generate them,” Kahvejian said. 

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Shaking up the traditional drug discovery model isn’t exactly novel. Several companies are working to target proteins that were previously considered undruggable. Others are using computational models to predict how drugs might work in patients or subgroups of patients. 

Cellarity is looking beyond particular proteins, binding sites or cell processes, such as autophagy, the cell’s garbage disposal. Instead, it uses single-cell technologies to look at how changes in the molecular network of a cell changes its behavior and determines whether it is healthy or diseased. It uses its digital biology platform to translate data from its physical laboratory into its digital lab, dubbed the Cellarium. There, AI tech creates Cellarity Maps, which don’t just map out cell behaviors, but lay out ways to change those behaviors to get from one network state to another. 

“It’s the difference between using MapQuest to go somewhere and using Google Maps and determining which modality you want to use or which path you want to take to get there,” Chief Digital and Data Officer Milind Kamkolkar said. “Sometimes, small molecules will work against a defined target. In other areas, the target is valuable, but the small molecule is not. We are disease agnostic and therapy agnostic.” 

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It’s still early days for Cellarity, but it plans to be a drug discovery and development company and advance its own pipeline: “All the many molecules we are going to generate, we plan to move into the clinic,” Cristina Rondinone, Ph.D., the company’s president, said. 

“Cells are the fundamental unit of life in all tissues and organs, so you can use this platform in all therapeutic areas. This includes oncology, metabolic disease, inflammation, neurological disease and many, many more,” Rondinone added. “This is a platform company, so we are going to expand to every therapeutic area.” 

And to do that, it may enlist partners.

“We don’t rule anything out and of course, we are going to choose the right partner to help us and move us as fast as possible,” Rondinone said. “Maybe some partners with more expertise than us in some biology or some therapeutic area would be fantastic. We are just now exploring.”

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