How Recursion Pharmaceuticals Will Expand Our Understanding of Cell Biology

Neil Devani
Oct 3, 2017 · 4 min read

Although I love working with founders and venture investing, I usually loathe writing about it. Most posts I read feel overdone and end up being reductionist to the point of low or no utility. Despite that, I felt the need to write about my most recent startup investment. The company, Recursion Pharmaceuticals, is on a mission that stands to change not just the pharmaceutical industry, but our entire understanding of cell biology. Yes, that’s a more subtle and specific way of saying it will change the world.

I left the path of medicine over eight years ago. One reason was my realization that clinical decision-making is highly algorithmic. More data leads to more knowledge leads to more certainty and less errors. Before you know it, doctors don’t have to do a differential diagnosis or strategize a treatment plan because computers do that.

Tissue Analytics, another company I’m proud to have invested in, is a pure manifestation of that realization. The TA team has built best-in-class software to measure, analyze, and track chronic wounds. This solution follows a problem that is quantitatively, qualitatively, and visually measurable and predictable. Used by hundreds of clinicians, the software dramatically reduces human error, eliminating it entirely from certain aspects of the process. It also provides clinical decision support, which drives improved clinical outcomes. Measurable reductions in patient pain and suffering and avoided amputations prove the immense value.

This software has directly prevented patients from losing limbs. Read that again till it sets in. Now, with a library of wound images and deep clinical context, the software can provide actionable insights beyond any human’s ability. A redefinition of workflow applying computer vision and machine learning changes the problems that can be solved and provides solutions previously considered impossible.

Recursion Pharmaceuticals takes that same approach a layer deeper. Whereas Tissue Analytics observes skin lesions, Recursion goes down to the cell level to identify molecules that can treat rare, complex diseases. Imagine a human sifting through a haystack for a needle. Now imagine a machine looking at every strand of hay faster and with certainty. That is Recursion.

In standard drug development pipelines, a human visually analyzes slides of cell tissue to see the effect of a test compound on healthy vs. diseased tissue. This takes time and is prone to error. Recursion gives this task to a machine, enabling the study of many more combinations of tissues and compounds with less error. The depth of that study also exponentially increases from 1–2 features per slide to 100s or 1000s of features per slide. The technology enables a more “brute force” approach to drug discovery, applying many drugs to multiple diseases to see which ones actually work. The previous method was (and still is) glorified guesswork in most cases.

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Recursion Step-By-Step

An empirical approach to drug discovery makes sense intuitively; it just wasn’t feasible until now. With over thirty drug candidates across more than twenty diseases, it’s safe to say the technology is working. But wait, there’s more. The two million new images and twenty terabytes of data that Recursion generates each week goes beyond identifying drug candidates. The data set enables a deeper understanding of human and cell biology. The image library gives more and more information about how cells behave in certain conditions, which leads to an understanding of why they behave that way.

We can see cells using a microscope, and we can measure the DNA and RNA inside these cells with some level of reliability. In between cells and their genetic code are the fields of biochemistry and molecular biology. We’ve always pretended to have more certainty about biochemistry and molecular biology than we actually do, but it’s at that level where the magic happens. With Recursion, we can take our ability to observe cells and cell tissue and apply a computational approach to better understand what’s happening inside them. Rather than hypothesizing about interactions between molecules that are invisible to us, we can try and test enough combinations to know what works and what doesn’t. This approach gives Recursion an understanding of cell biology beyond what humanity has had to date and an ability to discover treatments for previously incurable diseases. Now that’s something worth writing home about.

A big thanks to Nan Li at Obvious for the introduction to Christopher Gibson at Recursion, and to Zavain Dar at Lux and Michael Dempsey at Compound for their input.

From the company: Recursion Pharmaceuticals is an emerging biotechnology company that combines experimental biology, automation, and artificial intelligence in a massively parallel system to quickly and efficiently identify treatments for any disease which can be modeled at the cellular level. Recursion’s platform has been used to identify potential new treatments for genetic, inflammatory and oncological diseases, and is being applied broadly in additional areas of biology including infectious disease and diseases of aging. Founded in 2013, Recursion’s tech-first approach will enable treatments for diseases in a fraction of the typical timeframe and at a fraction of the cost and ultimately lead the company in building a roadmap of human cellular biology.

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