Utah medical tech firms are trying stem cells to treat back pain and artificial intelligence to develop new drugs

People suffering from lower back pain are expected to benefit from a drug developed by a biotechnology company in University of Utah Research Park and newly approved for a clinical study by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

DiscGenics, with offices at 675 S. Arapeen Dr. in Salt Lake City, said Tuesday that the FDA recently authorized the company to proceed with a clinical study of IDCT, a cell therapy designed to alleviate pain and restore function in patients with degenerative spine diseases.

Meanwhile, Recursion Pharmaceuticals, its Research Park neighbor at 630 Komas Dr., said it raised $60 million to continue work on applying artificial intelligence to traditional means of making new drug discoveries.

FDA approval means DiscGenics should be able to start enrolling 60 patients before year’s end in a clinical trial of IDCT, an injectable therapy using adult stem cells taken from spinal discs. The company believes the treatment will alleviate the pain of mild to moderate degenerative disc disease without surgery — or the use of potentially addictive opioids, said CEO and board chairman Flagg Flanagan.

“We believe it has the potential to offer pain relief and restored function to millions of patients suffering from the debilitating effects of lower back pain,” he added, noting the company has worked with the FDA for several years to design preclinical studies. “Receiving the go-ahead from the agency to begin in-human trials is a critical step forward for our clinical program.”

The company’s principal investigator, North Carolina neurosurgeon Domagoj Coric, added that preclinical studies suggest IDCT improved damaged discs in several animal models.

“If IDCT demonstrates similar results in human subjects, the outcome could be reduced pain and disability, potentially revolutionizing the way we treat patients with [degenerative disc disease] by bypassing many mid-stage treatments and potentially eliminating late-stage surgeries,” Coric said.

Last month, the company said it had secured $14 million from Mitsubishi UFJ Capital Co. Ltd., part of a $22 million funding round to support clinical development of IDCT.

Recursion Pharmaceuticals said a San Francisco-based venture capital fund, Data Collective, was the lead investor in its $60 million fundraising effort. Overall, Recursion has raised $80 million to develop the “world’s largest biological image dataset,” said CEO and co-founder Chris Gibson.

Currently growing by more than 2 million images and 20 terrabytes of data each week, the database models thousands of diseases in human cells, he said. Artificial intelligence will be used to look for changes in thousands of cellular and sub-cellular features, which could lead to the “discovery of novel biology, drug targets or drug candidates at an unprecedented scale and pace.”

The insights gained will be applied to drugs being developed internally by Recursion and in partnerships with major pharmaceutical firms, Gibson said.

Yoshua Bengio, a Canadian computer scientist described by the company as a “pioneer of deep learning,” is assisting Recursion with its artificial intelligence approach.

Data Collective managing partner Zachary Bogue will join Recursion’s board as part of the funding agreement.

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