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Food Allergy Biotech Raises $40M in New Funds

bread and rolls

(Sabine Schulte, Pixabay)

27 Jan. 2021. A biotechnology company designing proteins in food products and therapies for people with food allergies is raising $40 million in its second venture round. Ukko Inc., in Tel Aviv, Israel and Palo Alto, California is a four year-old company developing synthetic proteins for individuals who cannot eat normal food, starting with celiac disease and allergies to peanuts.

Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disorder, where the body’s immune system reacts to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. The immune reaction destroys the nutrient absorption capacity of the small intestine, leading to tissue damage. About one percent of people worldwide have celiac disease, with the only protection against symptoms being a strict gluten-free diet. An estimated 2.5 million Americans, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation, have celiac disease, but are undiagnosed and at risk for long-term complications.

Allergies to peanuts and other foods are a result of the body’s immune system misinterpreting certain foods as pathogens, and responding by the release of histamines, chemicals in the body causing the allergy symptoms. In most cases, the symptoms are mild, such as runny nose and itching, but people with peanut allergies face a real and elevated risk of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition constricting airways, swelling the throat, and causing a sharp drop in blood pressure. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says four to six percent of children in the U.S. have a food allergy.

Ukko is founded by Yanay Ofran, professor of systems biology at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, and entrepreneur Anat Binur. Ofran’s lab studies genomic and molecular interactions with biological functions and disease using computational and experimental methods.

“Big data allows us to understand the underpinnings of food sensitivities,” says Ofran in an Ukko statement released through Cision. “Computational tools allow us to precisely design the proteins that make up our bodies and our food. New genome editing technologies allow us to rewrite DNA to produce these new proteins in living cells. Ukko sits at the intersection of these breakthrough technologies, allowing us to redefine healthy food at the molecular level, based on real data.”

Lab tests show promising results

The company’s technology applies computational techniques, including artificial intelligence, to design food proteins without allergy-causing properties, while maintaining their nutritional benefits. Ukko says it already created a molecular map of food allergies, based on clinical data, for guiding development of its synthetic food proteins. The company says its lab tests with sample specimens from patients already show that its engineered proteins may not produce immune-system allergic reactions.

Ukko says its first products are a substitute protein for gluten that allows manufacturers to produce gluten-free bakery items without sacrificing quality, for people with celiac disease and other gluten sensitivities. The company is also developing a treatment for peanut allergies. Today’s peanut allergy treatments, including those approved by the Food and Drug Administration as reported last year by Science & Enterprise, aim to desensitize people with food allergies to allergens, proteins in food causing allergic reactions, by building increasing tolerance.

Ukko is raising $40 million in its second venture funding round, led by Leaps by Bayer, the venture investment arm of the German drug maker. Joining the round are current investors Khosla Ventures, Innovation Endeavors, and TIME Ventures, as well as new investors Continental Grain Company, Skyviews Life Science, PeakBridge Ventures, and Fall Line Capital.

“One of the big challenges we’re addressing through our Leaps investments,” notes Juergen Eckhardt, head of Leaps by Bayer, “is attempting to reverse autoimmune diseases, which have enormous impacts on our health systems in every community around the globe.”

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