In 2013, biotech start-up founder Dr Nora Khaldi started a talk by asking her audience to imagine a cereal bar that they could eat every day which would prevent them from getting diabetes. Four years later and her vision is well on the way to becoming a reality, thanks to a new peptide identified by her company, Nuritas , through its cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) approach to drug discovery.

It’s no small breakthrough. Today, one in every three adults over 30 in England are classed as pre-diabetic, and there is no proven medical or other treatment that can be recommended for pre-diabetics to help prevent their progression into diabetes, a disease that the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a global epidemic, affecting 422 million people, with 1.5 million dying in 2012 alone.

The peptide-discovery process

The peptide, which was found in a plant-based material that we have been consuming for thousands of years, works just like insulin, enhancing glucose uptake into the skeletal muscles, and was identified with the help of AI-driven technology.

“We have the biggest knowledge base in the world of interactions between proteins, peptides and human receptors, so first we identify an area of focus (in this case we were looking for a peptide that would modulate glucose uptake in skeletal muscles),” Khaldi explains regarding Nuritas’ methodology. “Then we go into many different foods and look for proteins and peptides that are going to have that effect. Once we’ve found them, we take the peptides of interest into the lab and test them to validate that activity. So far, this peptide has been through in-vitro trials.”

The next steps for Nuritas, which will be financed with over €3m worth of funding from the European Union (EU) Horizon ’s 2020 programme, the largest EU research and innovation programme to date, are a series of Ireland-based clinical trials over the next 18 months, followed by the commercialisation of the ingredient. Pending regulatory approval, Nuritas hopes to have its new peptide integrated into functional food products – such as the cereal bars Khaldi spoke of in 2013 – and available on the market as early as 2020.

Global impact

If all goes to plan, Khaldi anticipates that the new product, which through collaboration with a multinational partner will be made available globally at a price that allows maximum consumer access, could have a significant impact on the ongoing battle against diabetes.

“Today, there’s nothing you can take to prevent you from developing diabetes; when you go to your doctor, they can’t prescribe anything, they can only tell you that you have to change your lifestyle,” she notes.

"Today, there’s nothing you can take to prevent you from developing diabetes; when you go to your doctor, they can’t prescribe anything."

“The problem is that very few people actually do change their lifestyle so there’s a huge need for something to help these people from developing diabetes, which is a killer once you have it. I also think a lot of people would relate to something like this because it’s not a drug; it’s something they can enjoy eating while keeping their blood glucose healthy.”

She’s not the only one hailing the discovery as a breakthrough for pre-diabetics. “Prevention is globally accepted as key in the fight against the epidemic of diabetes but we have not seen anything to date to fill this role,” said renowned clinician Dr Lawrence A. Frohman, Professor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine. “The Nuritas clinical studies represent an exciting venture and bring new hope in developing this important field of disease prevention.”

AI: the future of drug discovery

The release of such a significant sum from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme is not only a vote of confidence in this particular peptide, Khaldi believes, but also in Nuritas’ AI-driven approach, which she predicts will be the starting point for all drug discovery in the future.

“Currently, how the system works is that a lot of it is just random search. It’s a waste of time for scientists because they’re constantly randomly testing things and hoping for something to work. That movement is going to disappear,” she forecasts. “Instead, we won’t go into the lab until we have a very high chance of actually making something work. So we go to an artificial brain that can process all the data very quickly and assess the [molecules] that have the highest potential of working.”

Khaldi’s AI angle also means that the company can move from one disease area to another very quickly, something that’s difficult for companies taking a more traditional approach. Currently, Nuritas is looking at four different areas – glucose uptake, anti-inflammation, anti-ageing and anti-microbial – and has several ingredients at various stages of the development process.

Incredibly, all of these peptides have been discovered in foods that have been around since humans have inhabited planet Earth. “It’s only now we’re seeing the potential!” Khaldi can’t quite believe. “Up until now, food has been eaten for energy purposes but what we’ve brought to the table is a whole new way of looking at food and understanding its true potential.

“Technologies are now coming together to be able to create ingredients that will be cost-effective and can prevent disease from occurring but could also cure disease. A lot of these peptides are as potent as any drug and they’re in our food.”

It’s little wonder, then, that in the short time since it was founded, Khaldi’s company has received worldwide acclaim. Not only was Nuritas recently classified amongst the 21 most innovative start-ups in the world, along with Uber , it has also received funding from international venture capital and angel investors across three continents, including U2 band members Bono and The Edge , and has been described as having the exceedingly rare potential to become bigger than Facebook.

But, if these life-changing peptides are present in the food we consume every day, why the need for Nuritas? “It’s a question I always get,” Khaldi grins, explaining that the peptides are locked in the food structure so when you simply eat the food you don’t get the benefits. “We unlock that peptide from the food, usually through hydrolysis or fermentation, so it becomes active.”