Roughly two children in every classroom suffer from a food allergy. One in ten American adults is also diagnosed with one. For an unlucky few, a single peanut can be a death sentence. Far more common, however, are mild food allergies and sensitivities that can still significantly impact a person’s quality of life.
The problem is often molecular. For people with gluten sensitivities, a specific arrangement of atoms inside a key plant protein is known to cause an immune reaction. But for many other problematic foods, the exact molecular trigger remains unknown. Avoiding harmful foods is therefore the obvious—though blunt—workaround.
“There is no solution today except really strict avoidance,” says Anat Binur, CEO and co-founder of Ukko, an Israeli food-tech startup. Binur and fellow co-founder Yanay Ofran began Ukko in 2016 in an attempt to shift the paradigm on food allergies. Their mission seems to have struck a chord. The company recently announced a $40M Series B funding round to advance its efforts in ending food allergies for good.
The funding Series was led by Leaps by Bayer—the impact investment arm of Bayer. “One of the big challenges we’re addressing through our Leaps investments is attempting to reverse autoimmune diseases. We are proud to lead this investment in Ukko and help solve the biggest allergies and food sensitivities, ”Juergen Eckhardt, MD, Head of Leaps by Bayer, said in a press release.
Ukko is not trying to perfect gluten-free pasta or find another so-so substitute for peanut butter — “yucky foods,” as Binur calls them. Rather, the company is going after the root of the problem by developing food proteins that cannot cause allergic reactions in the first place.
“The core of our approach is our AI-driven platform, which allows us to go to a protein at a component level and precisely engineer it in a way that keeps the good and gets rid of the bad,” explains Binur. For Ukko, this means retaining the key useful biophysical and biochemical traits of a food—including functionality, taste, and health-promoting properties—while removing the “bad” components that generate an allergic response.
Ukko is focusing first on two major food allergens: peanuts and gluten. But the company is taking two very different approaches to address them. For peanuts, Ukko aims to create an edible medicine that can promote immune tolerance for people with this allergy. For gluten, the company is developing hypoallergenic protein ingredients for food.
Food as Medicine
Peanuts are a leading cause of childhood allergy deaths. Beyond strict avoidance, which locks children and parents into a constant state of life-or-death vigilance, those with pronounced peanut allergies can attempt to quiet their immune overreaction through immunotherapy. This involves consuming small amounts of peanut protein in a controlled setting to build up some tolerance. Unfortunately, those with the most severe peanut allergies typically cannot safely consume even the smallest useful dose. For them, there are no options — vigilance is the only way.
“One of the challenges is that right now we are using the regular peanut protein, so people have a lot of side effects because that is what they are allergic to,” says Onyinye Iweala, MD, Ph.D. a food allergy specialist in the Division of Rheumatology, Allergy, and Immunology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine who is not affiliated with Ukko.
To address this therapeutics gap, Ukko is developing hypoallergenic peanut proteins that could usher in an immunotherapy option for all who need it. Because their proteins are engineered to contain fewer allergy-linked components, those with even the most severe sensitivities may tolerate them and thus develop some protective immunity.
“It’s exciting that they are trying this approach. If we could take some of the specially synthesized hypoallergenic peanut protein and use that to get people to become tolerized to peanuts, we could minimize side effects,” says Iweala.
With Ukko’s Series B funding secured, the company plans to advance its peanut proteins into clinical testing this year.
Gluten For All?
For the millions who suffer from gluten sensitivity, Ukko sees a bright future.
“Gluten is what is responsible for all the yummy and fluffy things that we actually like about baked goods,” explains Binur. “When you take it out, it’s very hard to create a wonderful croissant or baguette.”
Gluten-free alternatives are improving, but they are not without drawbacks. “You have a trade-off all the time between functionality and health. Get rid of the gluten and now you have to compensate with sugars and other things. So you end up having something that’s often not very tasty and not always healthy,” says Binur.
Iweala also notes that it is easier for patients to avoid peanuts and tree-nuts because of the publicity those allergies receive. “It is a lot harder to avoid wheat, eggs, soy, and dairy products because the latter group of common allergens is frequently one of the top three ingredients in so many foods,” says Iweala.
If Ukko’s hypoallergenic gluten protein is proven to be well-tolerated in people with gluten sensitivities and Celiac disease, baked goods, and other gluten-rich dishes may soon become safe for everyone to consume, with no gluten-free knockoffs or warning labels required.
“This year is going to be really important for us,” says Binur. “This [Series B] funding drives our next step, which is reaching clinical trials on both the peanut side and the gluten side, and getting the bread really ready for market entry. We’re excited.”
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Thank you to Ian Haydon for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest, including Leaps by Bayer.