Technology from Skolnick lab driving company focus on precision medicine
Developing new, life-saving treatments isn’t cheap or fast – on average, it costs more than $1 billion and takes 15 years to take a drug to market. It’s time that some people simply don’t have.
But a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology is working to streamline the process of getting good medicine to people who need it.
The lab of Jeffrey Skolnick, faculty member of the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar, has spent years developing algorithms to identify new therapeutic uses for existing drugs.
The technology is promising enough to have earned an Intel Innovation Award. Skolnick, a computational biologist, is chief science officer of Intellimedix, the company that deployed his lab’s technology and took home the award recently at the Health IT Leadership Summit in Atlanta.
“We see the award as recognizing the potential of the technology we’ve been developing,” says Skolnick, professor in the School of Biology and director of the Center for the Study of Systems Biology. “Imagine if one could use repurposed drugs to treat a disease, especially an intractable disease that leaves a patient with very few options.”
Created in 2010 by the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Technology Association of Georgia, the Health IT Leadership Summit annually brings together leaders from across the healthcare continuum to discuss how the industry can drive innovation to improve healthcare delivery.
Intellimedix was founded several years ago by two fathers who had become frustrated with the lack of treatments available for their children (who have a rare form of childhood epilepsy called Dravet syndrome). They met with Skolnick, whose technology, he says, “was ready for prime time testing.”
Recognizing that there was a lack of personalized medicine or effective treatments for a wide range of human diseases, they built a company around the Skolnick lab’s systems biology algorithms.
Now, the early-stage company is looking to make an impact in the world of precision medicine, thanks to the advances that have been made in the science of human genomics and computer processing speed.
The company’s core strategy is to use its technology to efficiently screen and validate large numbers of compounds against molecular/genetic targets known to cause a given disease – such as Dravet syndrome, something Intellimedix is working on, using zebrafish as an in vivo tool.
Intellimedix also uses its gene sequencing capabilities and high-throughput drug screening to provide precision medicine services to patients. They start by sequencing a patient’s genome, to identify disease-causing genes, as well as any genes modifying the disease.
“We live in the age of the cheap genomic sequence,” says Skolnick. “Actually, getting the sequencing done is cheaper than a lot of blood tests now. Of course, it’s like getting a parts list without an instruction manual.”
So, while your sequence might show 8,000 variants, about 95 to 99 percent of them will probably have no impact. Intellimedix uses its technology to narrow down the number.
“We have the ability to prioritize and identify a much smaller set of targets, which might be causative of certain types of disease,” Skolnick says.
After identifying suspicious genes, Intellimedix finds compounds that will bind to them, which can help determine the most efficacious treatment option with least side effects.
Intellimedix is looking to run clinical trials in humans based on its research into Dravet syndrome, and according to Skolnick, the company is in discussions with a major cancer treatment center for the possibility of using the technology in an effort to develop novel treatments for pancreatic cancer.
Skolnick, who came to Georgia Tech in 2006, says his team’s discoveries could not have been made without a supportive, multi-disciplinary environment, and a large computer cluster.
The result, after almost 10 years of work, is “a general toolkit,” Skolnick says. “But it could have a transformative impact.”
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