This is the Place to Target Genetic Diseases

University of Toronto startup Deep Genomics is using artificial intelligence to find better drugs for rare genetic disorders and to get them into the clinic faster.

Ever since the human genome was fully sequenced in 2003, scientists have been trying to figure out how to use the information to save lives. With each person’s DNA containing six billion letters, pinpointing a cause for a genetic disease using traditional scientific means is next to impossible—there is just too much information to sort through.

That realization was the key to the founding of Deep Genomics, a company launched at U of T that’s using artificial intelligence to pinpoint the genetic causes of disease and to rapidly discover and develop new therapies.

“For the first time in history, the amount of biomedical data has exceeded the ability of humans to understand it and to act on it,” says the company’s founder and CEO, University of Toronto Professor Brendan Frey. “The only way forward is to use artificial intelligence, which is very good at processing huge amounts of data, finding patterns and making accurate predictions.”

Deep Genomics is applying the techniques of deep learning, which is a type of artificial intelligence pioneered by Frey’s mentor, the renowned U of T professor Geoffrey Hinton. The idea is to use deep learning to mine the human genome for information on how diseases occur, and to design and test chemical compounds to treat them. Deep learning allows scientists to test billions of chemical compounds in a computer model and look for promising formulas that could be developed into life-saving drugs.

Frey’s goal is to get treatments into clinical trials faster than ever before—which should happen, he says, as early as 2020.

Deep Genomics’ own DNA is inextricably tied to U of T, which is a world leader in AI. It started with Frey’s PhD work with Hinton in the 1990s, when they published one of the first papers on deep learning in Science magazine in 1995. It is also reflected in the company’s staff today.

“U of T has some of the best scientists and engineers in the world, and Deep Genomics is fortunate to have been able to recruit people from this pool,” Frey says.

The start-up got important early support from U of T’s entrepreneurship network, including the Creative Destruction Lab, the Innovations & Partnerships Office and UTEST.

“The U of T network offers highly effective channels for entrepreneurs to access unparalleled mentors and funding opportunities,” says Frey. “Deep Genomics was able to use these channels to raise funding on good terms, and to recruit world-class advisors. Toronto—and U of T—is possibly the best place in the world to start an AI-biotech company right now.”

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