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Mission impossible? AI unlocks peptides hidden in fava beans

Article-Mission impossible? AI unlocks peptides hidden in fava beans

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Nuritas CEO and founder Dr Nora Khaldi explains how artificial intelligence (AI) is enabling the Irish biotech company to mine previously unreachable peptides and create efficacious combinations that target specific health needs.

“A machine that can discover the best of nature and bring it to market” was how Khaldi described Nuritas’s AI-powered bioactive peptide discovery platform during a fireside chat at the Vitafoods Insights Theatre at Vitafoods Europe, in Geneva, earlier this month.

Khaldi, a mathematician with a PhD in molecular evolution and bioinformatics, could undoubtedly have launched into a more technical explanation, but instead chose to take an accessible approach to a complex topic: how AI can be used to data-mine nature for the discovery of peptides that can improve human health.

“The problem the health and wellness industry faces is that it has a very small pool of scientifically proven active ingredients with clinicals behind them. A lot of them were invented over 70 years ago and there are no patents on them and no differentiation, which means the brands using them are finding it hard to differentiate,” she said.

“The other problem is that developing ingredients is expensive – it takes decades, costs millions, and is very difficult to do. That is why there are no new ingredients, only incremental developments, such as a more sustainable production method or a slight modification of molecules.”

Challenging the status quo

Nuritas wants to change this, “one ingredient at a time”, with the use of The Magnifier, a tool that uses AI to accelerate peptide ingredient discovery and development.

“An AI system is like a glove – it takes the form of whatever data you put into it; it took us a few years to develop the data,” Khaldi told delegates.

The Magnifier feeds off three inputs: experimental data, ingredient source data, and data curated from literature, she explained.

“The experimental data comes from all the experiments we have done over the past eight years where we have tested different peptides on cells and tissues,” she said. “This is combined with data that comes from constantly scanning nature for sources from different geographies, which involves a lot of mass spectroscopy and chemistry to understand what is inside every source material, and a data curation of literature.”

Khaldi continued: “Using these three different inputs, the platform can then start with a consumer need – muscle health, for example. The AI can transform that human need into a biological question and can start to identify peptides in different source materials that could have an activity. Then, in our labs, we produce and test the peptides and progress the good candidates to clinical trials.”

Development in under two years

In this way, Khaldi said Nuritas can discover ingredients in less than two years from start to end, including the human clinical trials, formulation, and regulatory clearance.

So far, the company has brought to market two peptide ingredients: PeptiStrong, a muscle health ingredient for foods and supplements, and PeptiYouth, a skincare peptide for topical application.

“What we are offering is new combinations of peptides from nature that can’t be accessed ordinarily but can be through our technology,” said Khaldi.

She explained that peptides are short proteins that possess extra functionality which cannot be derived from a normal diet.

“When you eat protein sources your body breaks up the protein randomly which means it doesn’t get access to the peptides. It is only through our technology that we can break them up and bring them to humans in a way that makes them available,” she said.

Khaldi said PeptiStrong would have taken 18 billion billion combinations and permutations to discover, which would have taken 30 million years through traditional methods.

No way without AI

“There simply was no way of developing it without AI. The Magnifier allowed us to cut all of this, reduce the space and, in a matter of months, find a network of peptides, this time from fava beans, that can improve skeletal muscle,” she said.

As well as cutting discovery time, The Magnifier identifies ingredients with a significantly higher probability of clinical success, according to Khaldi.

“Through the technology, we are capable of improving our clinical success, so 80% of what we enter into clinical shows a significant primary outcome,” she said. “That is massive and that is due to the platform technology.”

Nuritas has conducted three clinical trials with PeptiStrong, including a pilot study in which the peptide complex was found to outperform milk protein at building muscle.

Muscle health is a key focus for Nuritas, but it is not the only health area the company is targeting. 

“We have many ingredients in early development and choose which to prioritise according to market trends,” Khaldi said.

Leading the pipeline is PeptiSleep, a sleep ingredient that works via three mechanisms: cortisone-lowering, anti-inflammatory, and anti-stress.

“The goal is to take market share off melatonin. By combining peptides, we can offer much better efficacy,” said Khaldi.

“Our goal as a company is to cover the entire genome so for every need we will have a peptide solution. That is impossible with conventional research techniques, but doable with AI.”