Last month the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology synthetic biology team took off for theInternational Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, held in Paris. The students in the group were engineering special bacteria that will produce an industrial substance that deters hair loss, and which can be added to regular shampoos and other haircare products.
This year, the iGEM team from the Technion included 12 students from across the Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering, the Henry and Marilyn Taub Faculty of Computer Science, the Faculty of Biomedical Engineering, and the Ruth and Bruce Rappaport Faculty of Medicine. The team recently received a special Impact grant given to only a small number of the teams participating in the global competition based on their projected benefits to humanity.
Every year, the team chooses an innovative project in the field of synthetic biology, and this year, it involves substances that inhibit hair loss caused by chemotherapy. One of the most common cancer treatments, chemotherapy causes damage to healthy, living tissues and oftentimes hair loss, among other severe side effects.
The Technion team set to compete in iGEM worked on proving the feasibility of lab production of Decursin, a hair loss deterrent, and its possible incorporation into preparations including shampoo, cream, and more. Decursin is a major component of Angelica gigas Nakai (AGN) root extract. It has many beneficial properties including the abilities to suppress inflammation, repress cancer, and prevent apoptosis – or programmed cell death, which includes hair cells.
Today, the molecule is produced from a rare seasonal flower grown in Korea in an expensive and inefficient process. The student team is engineering bacteria that will produce Decursin industrially.
The prestigious iGEM competition was founded in 2004 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to give students, mainly undergraduates, a chance to experience scientific and applied research in the world of synthetic biology. Since its inception, the competition has been held in Boston. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was held online for the past two years.
This year, more than 300 teams from around the world will participate in the competition, including three Israeli teams – one from the Technion, one from Tel Aviv University, and one from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The first Israeli iGEM team was established at the Technion in 2012 under the guidance of Professor Roee Amit, a faculty member in the Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering. He guides the Technion team to this day.
Over the years, teams from the Technion have won multiple gold medals in the competition. But according to Prof. Amit, “Beyond participation and winning, it is important to understand that some of the developments by the Technion teams have already been turned into applied and commercial tracks and have a real impact in the world. One of the most prominent examples is Koracell, which was founded on the basis of the technology developed by our students in preparation for a competition iGEM in 2019. The group developed an innovative technology for the production of honey without bees using a genetically engineered bacterium. This technology allows the honey’s texture and taste to be precisely designed, and it is also a platform for simulating other natural metabolic processes.”
OrCam Technologies, which has been around since 2010, is continually coming up with new innovations
As we approach World Sight Day, one Israeli company is ensuring it continues to deliver groundbreaking solutions for the visually impaired.
OrCam Technologies, whose Vice President of Research & Development, Nir Sancho, is a Technion alum, has recently launched OrCam Learn – an interactive assistive solution that empowers students with learning challenges, such as dyslexia.
The handheld assistive device is compact and wireless with an intuitive point-and-click operation that reads out loud any text that has been captured by a student. It will then listen to and provide feedback on the student’s reading comprehension, using a variety of metrics such as text difficulty level, fluency, accuracy, reading rate and total reading time.
It works across a range of formats, including books, screens or paper handouts.
Its technology supports both teachers and schools and results in enhanced comprehension, reading fluency and improvement of overall confidence in an education setting.
There are currently over 50 schools in the UK currently using OrCam Learn.
The innovation is just the latest in a long line for the award-winning company. At the beginning of the year, it won a CES innovation award for its MyEye Pro device, which aids the blind and visually impaired by reading out printed and digital text, as well as recognising people and helping to identify products.
The MyEye Pro is mounted onto a pair of glasses to communicate visual information. Its new ‘Smart Reading’ feature, which helps users find specific information – much like the Ctrl-F (Find) functions on a computer – helped sway the judges, along with its voice assistant, which “enables control of all device features and settings hands-free, using voice commands.”
Meanwhile, OrCam Read – the handheld digital reader – won Best Consumer Edge AI End Product at the 2022 Edge AI and Vision Product of the Year Awards.
Launched in 2020, it supports people with mild to moderate vision loss, as well as those with difficulty reading, using a ‘point and click’ function that allows the device to read text from print or screens.
Kidney failure, Multiple Sclerosis and stroke are all being targeted
Two Technion master’s degree students have created a way to accurately predict whether a person is likely to have a stroke.
Working under the supervision of the head of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in Medicine, Shany Biton and Sheina Gendelman worked with more than one million ECG recordings from more than 400,000 patients to create a machine-learning algorithm to assess the likelihood of developing an irregular heart rhythm atrial fibrillation (AFib), which causes one in seven strokes.
Only 5% of the 60% predicted to develop AFib did not go on to develop the condition.
It means countless lives could be saved as those at risk are notified in advance, enabling them to make necessary lifestyle changes to either prevent or delay the condition.
Professor Behar, who led the study, said: “We do not seek to replace the human doctor. We don’t think that would be desirable. But we wish to put better decision support tools into the doctors’ hands.”
Meanwhile, two Technion-led startups are changing the way we treat some of the most common health conditions.
CollPlant Biotechnologies – led by alum Yechiel Tal – is working with United Therapeutics Corporation to manufacture artificial kidneys using a former tobacco plant. The process includes growing small plantlets from the seeds of engineered tobacco plants to create the collagen required for the 3D printing of human organs.
“Organ shortages are an unmet global health need, [and] by partnering with United Therapeutics, we have made significant progress with this pivotal organ manufacturing initiative,” Tal said. “We remain committed to exploring new innovative applications in the fields of medical aesthetics and 3D bioprinting of tissues and organs.”
NeuroGenesis – whose COO is a Technion alum – is another Israeli company making giant strides in healthcare thanks to its stem cell therapy which hopes to regenerate the brain of MS sufferers.
Of 15 patients who received spinal injections from their own bone marrow, nine experienced a drop in levels of neurofilament light chain – a protein heightened as the disability progresses – and eight went on to have improved disability scores, even after a year.
The peer-reviewed study has been published in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine.
If thinking you’re sick can make you feel sick, is there a way to train your brain — and your body — to reverse that process and restore you to health?
That’s the central question that Tamar Koren, an MD-PhD candidate at the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa focused on psychosomatic illness, is researching.
Professor Shai Shen-Orr, head of the school’s Systems Immunology & Precision Medicine Laboratory, is mapping how the immune system ages as people age — to the point of being able to calculate the age of someone’s immune system based on cellular data.
Professor Ron Kimmel, founder of the Geometric Image Processing Lab in the Technion’s Henry and Marilyn Taub Faculty of Computer Science, is using artificial intelligence and machine learning to train computers to analyze biopsy images of human tissue in order to determine not only whether a tissue is cancerous, but also what type of mutation it is and how much it has metastasized.
All three projects are examples of the kind of research being cultivated under the Technion’s new Human Health Initiative (THHI) — a recently announced effort to bring together teaching hospitals, different Technion departments and commercial companies to focus on solving specific health-related challenges.
“This initiative addresses world challenges that require multidisciplinary solutions,” said Shen-Orr, who is also the cofounder of CytoReason, a pharmaceutical artificial intelligence company. “We’re moving from research based on departments and faculties to being goal oriented. In addressing problems of human health, it doesn’t matter where people sit. They need to work together.”
The THHI is focused on six areas: staff and student engagement, new undergraduate and graduate educational programs, recruitment of top-notch researchers, funding, shared office and lab space for “essential meeting of minds,” and acquisition of cutting-edge lab equipment and other research infrastructure.
The new initiative dovetails with other Technion projects with outside partners, such as the university’s Bridge to Next-Generation Medicine program with Cincinnati Children’s Medical Center. That project aims to revolutionize pediatric medicine by combining the Technion’s technological prowess, including world-renowned expertise in computational science and artificial intelligence, with doctors and scientists focused on understanding and treating childhood diseases.
“The Technion believes that the time is ripe for taking the next quantum leap: addressing human health in a comprehensive, institute-wide manner,” Technion President Uri Sivan said. “The THHI represents a major intellectual and cultural undertaking in this direction. No other university in the country, and only a handful around the world, are positioned so well to take this leap.”
The idea behind the THHI is to pull people out of their comfort zones and create collaborations across units and disciplines.
“Rather than telling our investigators what they should be doing, the best way is bringing them together, and the magic is guaranteed to happen,” said Noam Ziv, who is spearheading the THHI project.
Ziv said the Technion’s prime advantage is that it’s one of the world’s few technical universities that also has a medical school.
“I don’t think you have to convince anybody that human health is a huge challenge,” Ziv said. “Our population is expanding, average age is increasing and the number of challenges associated with human health seems to be growing all the time. The coronavirus is a prime example of how things that affect one part of the world quickly affect other parts.”
During the height of the pandemic, for instance, Technion data scientists raced to improve the efficiency of PCR tests using algorithms. Biologists worked to create rapid testing kits that wouldn’t need sophisticated machines to yield quick results. Still others aimed to devised a sticker, which when placed on a mask, neutralizes viruses on contact.
The THHI extends to researching mind/body interactions.
To prove their hypothesis about psychosomatic illness, Koren and her team induced colitis in lab mice and waited for them to recover. Researchers then artificially stimulated the neurons in the brain that had become active during the bout of colitis. Inflammation re-emerged in the exact same location even though there was no infection. Likewise, suppressing memory neurons reduced the inflammation in mice who were sick with colitis.
“If, for example, you receive a text message from your friend that he has COVID and you just saw him last night, you immediately start to envision that you’re also sick. And you start to manifest physical presentations of a very similar disease: your throat itches, you start coughing, you feel weaker,” Koren said. “Studies have shown that stress or emotional triggers can initiate disease, or sometimes exacerbate a disease that’s already been diagnosed.”
Koren’s research represents a joint effort among neurosurgeons, neurologists and immunologists — the kind of collaboration THHI seeks to cultivate and which is different from traditional approaches to research.
“These kinds of collaborations have already started to develop,” Koren said. “The fact that it’s both basic science and clinical research is a novelty.”
Eventually, Koren said, her team’s work could lead to a variety of new therapies for diseases that currently have no cure, in the form of magnetic stimulation or other non-invasive therapies for patients with rheumatic arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and other disorders.
“What we’re suggesting is not drugs, which also have adverse effects,” she said, “but regulation of brain activity that can alleviate their symptoms and improve their quality of life.”
This week, we continue our series on selected topics regarding cancer in Israel. In recent years, Israel has become a major leader in the technology and startup arena in health products. A leading example of the success in this arena has been the work of Gavriel Iddan.
One of the great technological advances that has made major contributions to medicine is fiber optic technology. The ability to transmit light along thin, flexible fibers and cables has had many applications in industry and elsewhere, especially telecommunications. One of the key individuals responsible for its development was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009.
Fiber optics had its main applications in medicine in the creation of various flexible scopes. These have become a mainstay of otolaryngology, as well as pulmonary medicine with bronchoscopy, and the use of arthroscopy for inspection of joints by orthopedists. But perhaps the best known use of endoscopy has been in the alimentary tract. Esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD) is a commonly used tool for diagnostic evaluation of the upper GI tract (esophagus, stomach, duodenum) while colonoscopy is widely used for screening and diagnosis of the lower GI tract.
Between the 1.2 meters of the upper gastrointestinal tract and the 1.8 meters of the large intestine, however, is a large organ, the small bowel or small intestine, comprising an additional 6 meters, which is mostly inaccessible to either of these instruments. In truth, it was previously difficult to undertake diagnostic studies of conditions which involved the small intestine—tumors of one type or another, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, etc.
Gavriel Iddan, born in Haifa in 1941, was an electro-optical engineer (whatever that is) and a graduate of the Technion in Haifa. He worked for the Rafael Armament Development Authority in Israel, working on guided missile technology, part of the research and development branch of the Israeli Ministry of Defense. In 1981, he was on a sabbatical leave in Boston and living next door to an Israeli gastroenterologist, Eitan Scappa. Iddan was working at Elscint, a company specializing in medical imaging. His neighbor, Dr. Scappa, developed some type of stomach ailment and Iddan became aware that there was no technology available for investigating his neighbor’s small bowel. This began his 20-year quest to solve the problem.
Iddan realized that the solution to the problem could lie with small charged coupled device imaging chips which had just been developed. (I have no clue what they are.)
By 1998, he had developed a prototype for an ingestible wireless capsule that contained a battery-powered camera and transmitter. This device would traverse the entire gastrointestinal tract and transmit images of the small bowel to a receiver held on the patient’s abdomen. Ultimately the device, capsule endoscopy, was created under the aegis of a new biotechnology company, Given Imaging, with a patent in 1999. The first patient underwent examination with this device in Dr. Scappa’s office in Ramat Hasharon near Tel Aviv. In this first trial, the capsule became stuck in the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine) and had to be pushed along by an endoscope.
In its current usage, it takes about an hour for the capsule endoscope to pass through the stomach. To get through the small intestine can take approximately another six hours. Passage through the large bowel is variable and can take hours or days. When the procedure is done, the recorder and patches are returned to the physician. The capsule itself is disposable and can be flushed down the toilet.
The procedure costs between $1,000 and $2,000. Once in about 1,000 procedures the capsule gets stuck and has to be retrieved in some fashion.
Given Imaging is headquartered in Yokneam, which seems to be the Israeli equivalent of Silicon Valley. It is a poster child for Israel’s hugely successful technology industries, with 140 scientists and technicians per 10,000 employees versus 85 in the U.S.
At this time, efforts are ongoing to expand the use of capsule endoscopy to investigate the large intestine and stomach. The same technology and video camera can be utilized to image those organs. In particular, it could hypothetically substitute for colonoscopy for those unwilling or unable to undergo that procedure. At this time, over 2 million capsule endoscopies are performed annually worldwide. One limitation is that additional procedures are limited, such as biopsies, but research groups are currently working to expand the ability of the capsule to be able to perform such procedures as well.
The pharmaceutical industry is considered one of the important sectors growth investors should focus on because of continuous research and development of new medicines, as well as commercialisation.
The development of new vaccines and medications for COVID-19 attracted a lot of investor attention in 2020, which caused biotech stock prices to skyrocket. This trend continued until 2021, resulting in rising biotech stock prices. However, the boom gave way to a biotech bear market in late 2021. This year, the broad market has performed poorly, but biotech shares have performed even worse, underperforming the broader markets.
Investors have become less interested in risky companies in the biotech sector because of high inflation and expectations for higher interest rates. The SPDR S&P Biotech ETF (XBI), an equal-weighted index of biotech stocks, has fallen 40% since January 1, 2021, and is down 23% so far this year. On the other hand, the S&P 500 is down 13.4% YTD. However, since mid-June, biotech stocks have begun a fast-paced recovery.
While current macro trends may hurt biotech stocks in the short term, innovative technology that is well managed has the potential to do very well in the long run. Covid emphasized this extensively, which has heightened market interest in coronavirus treatment and vaccine options. Given how oversold biotech stocks have become, many of these stocks are now appearing to be bargains.
Most biotech firms research and develop multiple drugs concurrently, providing these companies with multiple revenue streams and safe investment opportunities for investors. The current challenges seen by the biotech sector could create a fantastic buying opportunity for investors looking for a stock with the potential for significant long-term growth.
Given all of the above, here are 4 promising biotech companies to consider.
Intellia Therapeutics Inc (NTLA)
Intellia Therapeutics, founded in 2014, is a leading genome editing company that develops curative gene-editing treatments. The company’s programs include the treatment of transthyretin amyloidosis, hereditary angioedema, and acute myeloid leukemia; and proprietary programs focused on developing engineered cell therapies to treat various oncological and autoimmune disorders. Intellia also has licensing and collaboration agreements with various research institutes.
The company continues to make excellent progress with its clinical trials and is expected to present early-stage interim data from a couple of trials and make a major regulatory filing by the end of 2023. In recent financial results, Intellia reported positive progress in both the cardiomyopathy and polyneuropathy arms of the landmark Phase 1 study of NTLA-2001. The stock is down 45% YTD presenting a good time to add this stock to a growth investor’s portfolio as the positive events expected in the coming quarters might drive its stock higher in the coming months.
BioMarin Pharmaceutical Inc (BMRN)
BioMarin Pharmaceutical, Inc., founded in 1997, is a biotechnology company that engages in the development and commercialization of therapies for people with serious and life-threatening rare diseases and medical conditions. Its commercial products include Vimizim, Naglazyme, Kuvan, Palynziq, Brineura, Voxzogo, and Aldurazyme. The company’s pipeline includes Valoctocogene Roxaparvovec (Roctavian) which is in Phase III clinical trial for the treatment of Hemophilia A; BMN 307, an AAV5 mediated gene therapy which is in Phase 1/2 clinical trial; and BMN 255 which is in Phase 1/2 clinical tria for treating primary hyperoxaluria.
The company recently announced its Q2 earnings which surpassed analyst estimates. BioMarin reported $533.8 million in sales, up 6% Y/Y. Further, Voxzogo for achondroplasia (dwarfism) reported sales of $34.4 million. An estimated 446 children were being treated with commercial Voxzogo globally, compared to 284 children in Q1 FY22.
The stock is up 4% YTD and is expected to perform well in the long-term with the company’s commercial sales for Voxzogo in Japan and Australia expected to begin in Q3. BioMarin also expects that Roctavian will be approved in Europe in Q3, with FDA resubmission planned for September.
NurExone Biologic Ltd. (NRX.V)
NurExone is working on a treatment for traumatic central nervous system damage based on groundbreaking biological extracellular vesicles (E.V.) technology. This startup is developing ExoTherapies, in which exosomes are loaded with healing molecules, and an easy-to-administer delivery system to change the way traumatic spinal cord injury (SCI) is treated around the world. According to the World Health Organization, the estimated global SCI incidence is 40 to 80 new cases per million population per year.
NurExone’s first ExoTherapy, ExoPTEN, has shown very promising results for spinal cord injuries during animal studies. It promoted exon-growth functional recovery, or nerve regeneration. This suggests that NurExone’s groundbreaking and proprietary exosome-based therapy has the potential to provide a much-needed, functional-recovery providing treatment for SCI.
The company holds a worldwide exclusive license agreement with the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, for the development of technology, clinical trials, and commercialization. Nurexone (NRX.V) is now listed on the TSX Venture Exchange, following the completion of a Reverse Takeover Transaction.
Israel is home to more than 400 active biotech startups that have shown remarkable growth by leveraging advanced technologies. The country is known for investing the highest percentage of its GDP in R&D encouraging academic centers and research groups to develop breakthrough treatments. Given the availability of resources and support, alongside the fast-growing industry NurExone is pursing, the company is primed to experience significant growth in the coming years.
Vertex Pharmaceuticals Incorporated (VRTX)
Vertex, founded in 1989, focuses on the discovery, development manufacturing, and commercializing of breakthrough small molecule drugs for serious diseases including cystic fibrosis, infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases, and neurological disorders. The company reported strong second-quarter results with product revenues up 22% Y/Y to $2.20 billion.
The stock is up 24% YTD. Given the company’s recent pipeline development, the stock has more upside potential. Vertex’s CF (cystic fibrosis) drug TRIKAFTA recorded strong performance in the United States. As a result, the company expects the demand for CF drugs to remain high additionally driven by the launch of KAFTRIO outside the United States. Vertex has completed the Phase 3 study of TRIKAFTA/KAFTRIO in children 2 to 5 years old and expects to submit global regulatory filings for TRIKAFTA/KAFTRIO in children 2 to 5 years old this year.
Vertex has also filed a Supplemental New Drug Application (sNDA) with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and a Marketing Authorization Application (MAA) with the European Medicines Agency (EMA) for the use of ORKAMBI in children 12 months to less than 24 months old.
Biotech stocks have started to recover with some big players reporting positive growth in the recent quarter. Investors who add the right biotech companies to their portfolio now will be able to reap lucrative rewards in the long run when the bear market eventually subsides.
Researchers at the Israel Institute of Science and Technology are making great strides in how the disease is both detected and treated
Technion professors and graduates are continuing to make significant contributions in the field of cancer research.
Professor Yuval Shaked, along with startup, OncoHost, has created a blood test that will allow doctors to provide personalised treatment plans to cancer patients, Ibex Medical Analytics, headed up by Dr Daphna Laifenfeld (who researched it during her time at the university), has created an Artificial Intelligence-based cancer diagnostic software, while NanoGhost, co-founded by Professor Marcelle Machluf, is another technology “that targets cancer cells with modified adult stem cells loaded with medicine.”
Having already raised $5 million, NanoGhost – which innovatively delivers cancer medicine directly to tumour cells, allowing the potency to be reduced by a factor of a million – has been treating pancreatic, lung, breast, prostate and brain cancer successfully in mice.
Professor Machluf says: “This integration turns the NanoGhost platform from a ‘taxi’ that delivers the drug to the target into a ‘tank’ that participates in the war.
“The integrated platform delivers the drug to the tumour and enables a significant reduction in drug dosage yet still does the job. We also showed that our method does not harm healthy cells.”
NanoGhost is on track to begin clinical trials in 2023.
The university team has tested its research on mice in a novel trial
A team of scientists from Technion – Israel Institute of Technology has used genetically engineered muscle tissue to cure mice of type 2 diabetes.
Muscle cells are among the main targets of insulin, which is supposed to absorb sugar from the blood. However, in type 2 diabetics, this ability is reduced.
Up until now, restoring the metabolic activity of muscles has just been an unexplored idea. Now, however, the theory has been proven – thanks to Professor Shulamit Levenberg, Dean of the Faculty of Biomedical Engineering at the Technion and doctoral student Rita Beckerman.
Isolating the muscle cells and engineering them to be metabolically functional before transporting them back into the abdomen of the diabetic mice led to the now-healthy cells absorbing sugar correctly and improved blood sugar levels – both in the abdominal muscles and elsewhere in the body.
The mice remained cured of diabetes for the entire four-month period which they were observed.
Professor Levenberg said: “These cells worked hard and absorbed glucose, and also secreted factors that systematically affected the metabolism of the mice.
“The approach can be used to rescue mice from their diabetic situation, and now we hope to be able to use it in the future as a treatment for humans.”
“It’s such a novel approach that we really didn’t know what to expect, but we were extremely happy with the result”, Beckerman added.
“This could potentially, in the future, give human patients with Type 2 diabetes the possibility of having an implant and then going for a few months without taking any medications.”
The research is published in the peer-reviewed Science Advances journal.
Diabetes currently affects 4.7 million people in the UK, according to Diabetes UK – 90% of which will have type 2. Type 2 diabetes can lead to long-term complications such as heart disease, stroke, kidney failure and blindness.
This Israeli startup finds key ingredients in nature that are also found in breast milk
The ingredients that make mother’s milk the best possible thing for a baby will now be available for grownups.
Israeli food tech startup Maolac uses an algorithm that matches the key proteins in breast milk with alternative sources found in mushrooms, algae, and plants.
Everything that baby benefits from — protection against illness, anti-inflammatory qualities, and nutrition — will be utilized in a superfood for adults, Maya Ashkenazi Otmazgin, and biomedical engineer and the CEO for Maolac, tells NoCamels.
“We created an algorithm that can actually look at all the proteins inside breast milk and mix and match the key proteins responsible for different functionalities and then find them in alternative sources in nature, like mushrooms, algae, and plants,” she says.
Maolac is also said to be the first company in the world to identify and extract functional proteins from bovine colostrum, a nutrient-rich milky fluid that comes from the udder of cows in the first four to five days after giving birth, which is 95 percent equivalent to those found in breast milk, according to the firm.
Extra milk from calves– as much as 20 liters per cow — is thrown away after getting a certain amount from each one. “If we look for it, we will see 5 billion liters of bovine colostrum that the dairy industry does not use,” Ashkenazi Otmazgin says.
“The idea of transforming the first, nutrient-rich milk of cows that have just given birth into a source for human protein is a stroke of pure genius. Billions of liters of bovine colostrum are discarded each year. Maolac takes this waste and creates a product of huge potential benefit to millions at a time when the world is desperately searching for new sustainable sources of protein. The company is a perfect example of the circular economy in action,” said Jon Medved, CEO of OurCrowd, which has invested in the company.
Otmagazin had the idea to create a superfood using nutritional ingredients found in breast milk while experiencing “the magic” of nursing her first child. She realized she wanted to harness the benefits of that breast milk for adults.
“I told myself – this is the ultimate superfood for mammals,” she says in a conversation with NoCamels during a short break between a hectic day of meetings. “There are different functionalities that breast milk can provide for a small human being and I realized we could leverage all the goodness to create something new inspired by a formulation that created the human species and actually brought us to where we are,” she says.
In 2018, Ashkenazi Otmazgin joined forces with Eli Lerner and immunity expert Dr. Ariel Orbach to form a food tech startup. The company just raised a $3.2 million seed funding round led by active crowdfunding platform OurCrowd with participation from The Kitchen FoodTech Hub founded by the Strauss Group, The Food Tech Lab, VentureIsrael, NEOME, and Mediterranean Towers Ventures.
Studies have shown that there are numerous benefits to breastfeeding a baby that both protect against illness and positively impact health and child development. According to the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, breast milk provides abundant and easily absorbed nutritional components, antioxidants, enzymes, immune properties, and live antibodies from the mother that attack germs and protect the baby from illness.
Maolac’s technology relies on a bio-convergence platform for the discovery of proteins based on machine learning and natural language processing search algorithms. The company identified more than 1,5000 known bio-active proteins in human breast milk and over 400 homolog proteins in bovine colostrum, and have since created thousands of human functional milk protein mixtures using similar ingredients found in plants and mushrooms, and other sources found in nature.
Ashkenazi Otmazgin stresses that the alternative sources must come from nature. “We don’t make them in a lab or genetically modify our mixtures.”
Maolac’s active ingredients work like breast milk to directly target specific body function, traveling through the bloodstream or gut to produce higher overall efficacy at lower dosages, a statement from Maolac said.
One of the ingredients has anti-inflammatory properties and is part of the first Maolac product line for humans. It will target athletes to reduce muscle strain and improve recovery time. The product will also target the elderly to support living and improved mobility. It will form the basis for the next generation of gut health solutions for humans and pets to help prevent severe cases of gut inflammation.
The second ingredient will be a part of products creating the next generation of probiotics, according to Otmazgin. It will contribute to a better digestive system to reduce inconvenience due to stress in the gut, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or other conditions
Maolac will use the seed funding they just raised to build a state-of-the-art facility that will feature small-scale production capabilities. The facility will also be able to create analytics and samples for customers and clinical trials.
Ashkenazi Otmazgin tells NoCamels that the startup is in advanced discussions on joint development agreements with several leading Israeli companies in the food and supplements markets. It is also in talks with several of the world’s leading dairy protein producers and global dairy, ingredient, and supplement companies.
“We have several contracts on the table with potential global manufacturers that will produce for us. Our intention is to go global,” says Ashkenazi Otmazgin, citing both the US and Europe.
“We want to be the next generation of smart ingredient companies that create precision proteins for the food supplements and cosmetics industries with a portfolio of products with different functionalities,” says Ashkenazi Ashkenazi Otmazgin, “We want to bring active ingredients in small doses that won’t have an influence on taste, texture, or colors of existing food products, so people will love to consume those products.”
Ashkenazi Otmazgin also admits that in the future, the company will go to other markets, like the baby formula market. “Not full formula, but functional ingredients for the industry,” she adds.
For now, though, the focus is breast milk.
“There are so many companies that work in the alternative space and don’t look at breast milk — there is something quite repulsive when you talk about it. But adults can take real advantage of it,” she says.
Two-minute AI profile saves physician from time-consuming trawl of medical records
The average doctor’s appointment lasts about 20 minutes — 30 if you’re lucky. The physician sees dozens of patients, many with complex histories and taking a range of medications. Every detail is important, but there’s no way a doctor can keep track of it all.
Enter Navina (“Together we Understand” in Hebrew), a platform that uses AI to present a doctor, with an entire in-depth medical history that they can read and digest in two minutes.
It presents them with indications of risk factors, illnesses, and treatments of a patient, in an easy-to-read patient profile that can be accessed through a smartphone app. So they no longer need to trawl through a mass of records going back months and years from different hospitals and different specialists.
The company was founded by two former intelligence officers who revolutionized the use of AI during their time in the IDF to present military commanders with the data they needed, when they needed it.
They are now adapting that model to help busy doctors who need to have all relevant data at their fingertips the moment their patient walks into the surgery.
Navina says it turns “chaotic data into actionable patient portraits”. The portrait replaces disorganized patient data with a logical grid that makes it possible for a primary care physician to access a patient’s medical records within seconds.
Navina’s patient portrait provides a one-page summary with critical information from many sources, including images, emails, and faxes that are hard for physicians to find on their own.
The team teaches the machine how to extract the proper data no matter what the source. To do this, Navina developed NLP (natural language processing) models which extract and structure the data through deep learning. with special codes for specific terminology.
Ronen Lavi, co-founder and CEO of Navina, compares the profile to what happens when you do a Google search on a person, where clicking to search will get you a page that is a roundup of the person with a photo, biography, information about life experiences, and articles correlated with the person. Similarly, Navina would present a contextual summary of a patient’s most pertinent medical information so that physicians can understand their health status.
“We built algorithms to do two main things. First, you have a lot of unstructured data — a lot of text. In a process called entity extraction, we extract all the right relevant codes out of the text, all the labs, all the meds, all the problems, all the diagnoses, through machine learning (ML) capabilities. Then, we build a knowledge graph that links all the data,” he tells NoCamels.
“For a problem like blood pressure, [the profile] will show you the right medication, the right consult notes, the right lab tests, everything is correlated and explained to the physician. That’s the two main things we’re doing behind the scenes,” he says, noting that it’s about taking all the information, doing a correlation, and then creating a link that gives you a contextual understanding of your subject.
“What we saw was one of the main problems of physicians. They can address one or two problems — maybe three — if they know them in advance,” Lavi adds. “Five minutes before having to leave, the patient remembers – ‘Oh, hey, I have to ask you about this medication. I have to ask you about the new problem I have. I have to ask you about my family — and the physician hates this. The patient also hates it because they get the answer, ‘Sorry, my friend, I can’t deal with this right now. I have to go to the next meeting. And the patient doesn’t get the full attention he needs.”
The Navina app is currently being used by some 1,500 physicians and at leading clinics across the United States. The company is also marketing the product to health providers and risk adjustment teams , that predict future health care expenditures of individuals based on diagnoses and demographics.
Cutting through the clutter of patient data
The healthcare industry has amassed a huge amount of data over time, which has quickly become disorganized and difficult to manage. With so much data to analyze so quickly, health professionals often turn to AI to organize and interpret the data for improved insights.
This isn’t easy, Lavi tells NoCamels. In fact, it’s “complicated technology,” which explains why it hasn’t been done before. But Navina has a number of AI and medical experts on its team, including two co-founders with experience in the elite 8200 unit of the IDF, where they focused on bringing AI from theory into practice.
Lavi spent 24 years in 8200 and at the Prime Minister’s Office, where he established and led the AI Lab of Israel’s Military Intelligence, which collaborates with leading tech companies and academia to develop cross-functional platforms that provide insight into challenging data. Shay Perera, CTO at Navina spent a decade in elite intelligence units, where he was involved in R&D and held leadership positions. He also has a Master of Science in electrical engineering from the Technion with a specialty in machine learning.
Perera says a relative of his was diagnosed very late with cancer due to mistakes by the family doctor and his condition deteriorated as a result. The pair realized GPs were missing out on many critical diagnoses because they couldn’t absorb the volume of patient data they had to deal with.
Lavi and Perera were responsible for one of the greatest revolutions that took place in 8200 and later in the IDF – the smart data revolution that is presented to commanders in real-time. The two built the AI / ML-based information systems of the cyber units that processed data and upgraded the capabilities of cyber commanders and won a National Security Award for their efforts in 2018.
After being released from the army, the two used their knowledge and expertise in data, AI, and machine learning to make a difference in people’s lives. For Naviana, founded in 2018, the two replicated the data model they built in the IDF to implement it in health institutions around the world.
“I think the gain for the patient is very obvious,” says Lavi, “They want to get everything to be addressed. And the physician should be with the patient, not with the computer. And that’s what Navina allows them to do because everything’s summarized for you in two or three clicks.”
“Navina is disruptive because it’s one of the first digital health applications that I know of, which the physician is actually willing to use. It’s not a burden. The machine behind the scene does a lot of stuff for them that allows them to understand the patient very easily. And every time I say that, people ask how did nobody think about it before and why hasn’t it been done.”