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Food allergies

Biotech startup Ukko is solving food problems like peanut allergies and gluten intolerance of celiac sufferers.

By Yakir Benzion, United With Israel

A hot startup in Tel Aviv is working on solutions to end food allergies – especially the big ones like peanuts and the problems celiac sufferers have digesting gluten.

Just over four years old, Ukko is using a proprietary AI-powered platform that precisely engineers food proteins to eliminate the allergens that can cause serious and sometimes fatal reactions to common foods. At the same time, they are able to maintain the good biochemical and nutritional characteristics of the food.

The system takes data from the patient and uses computational biology, immunology, and protein engineering to create proteins that do not trigger the immune system, the company said in a recent press release.

Food allergies and gluten-related disorders are on the rise, with significant social, health, and economic impacts. In the U.S., one in every 13 children is affected by food allergies, and new cases of celiac disease have doubled every 15 years. Worldwde, food intolerance affects about 2.5 percent of the population, which translates to 200 million people.

At the same time, the demand for solutions is huge. Right now at least $25 billion is spent each year on healthcare costs related to food allergies and disorders.

Ukko is working in two main areas: developing improved gluten proteins that are especially designed for people with celiac and similar sensitivities, and developing its protein-design platform to engineer the allergens out of foods like peanuts.

“We are at a unique crossroads in the history of science,” said Prof. Yanay Ofran, Chairman and Co-founder of Ukko. “Big data allows us to understand the underpinnings of food sensitivities. 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.”

The company says it’s still working on the new technology that already suggests that the peanut and gluten proteins it is developing do not trigger adverse reactions in patients’ immune systems.

“We are at the forefront of a revolution. Pharma and the food industry will redefine how they think about their products and missions,” said Anat Binur, CEO and Co-Founder of Ukko. “Hundreds of millions of people around the world suffer from food allergies and experts see it as a global epidemic. Ending food allergy is critical and is only the beginning. Ukko’s tech has the potential to leverage science and human data to redesign our food and medicine.”

Last month the company got an investment of $40 million that was led by the impact investment arm of pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG, a huge verification of Ukko’s technology.

“Ukko’s investigative approaches to solving allergies and food sensitivities both from the food side and the patient therapeutics side have the possibility of delivering enormous benefits for humanity,” said Dr. Juergen Bayer, who heads Leaps by Bayer. “One of the big challenges we’re addressing through our Leaps investments is attempting to reverse autoimmune diseases, which have enormous impacts on the world’s food systems and our health systems in every community around the globe. We are proud to lead this investment in Ukko and help solve the biggest allergies and food sensitivities.”

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