Engine Biosciences’ Jeffrey Lu uses AI to crunch big data and discover drugs to treat common cancers, ALS and Alzheimer’s

This company's using artificial intelligence and big data to tackle cancers

Jeffrey Lu’s Engine Biosciences is bringing the latest technology to the medical field

by : Allyson Tutay

The momentum around big data is almost shocking. The amount of consumer information being collected via cookies on web browsers, GPS trackers and free Wi-Fi has been growing exponentially, creating a digital marketplace that is rife with privacy concerns.

The duality of big data and its propensity for both right and wrong makes it a force to be reckoned with. Fortunately, Jeffrey Lu’s Engine Biosciences is using big data for good. The mission statement on its website – to unleash faster and more effective drug discovery – sounds straightforward albeit intimidating. Lu is confident that his start-up will be able to treat diseases that have eluded modern scientists, including liver, breast and ovarian cancers.

As he reveals in a 2019 interview, without the help of big data, the process of treatment and finding cures for major diseases can take up to 15 years and require US$2.7 billion. But Lu believes that Engine Biosciences will be able to cut both time and costs. How? The simple answer is biotechnology; if you want details, it looks something like this – artificial intelligence, network biology and gene editing. The platform Engine Biosciences uses is the product of years of research and is driven by a team that includes faculty members at esteemed institutions such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and Mayo Clinic.

Lu’s reason for his endeavour is personal. Affected by his grandfather’s passing due to pancreatic cancer, Lu wanted to do something that would have a positive human impact. Now, positive human impact might be an understatement given the ambitious pursuits that Engine Biosciences has embarked on. It’s looking at drugs to address the common genes in liver, breast and ovarian cancers. It already has drugs to tackle ALS and Alzheimer’s, which have reversed some neurodegeneration in clinical trials involving mice.

Engine Biosciences already has drugs to tackle ALS and Alzheimer’s, which have reversed some neurodegeneration in clinical trials involving mice.

If he’s still following the timeline he laid out in 2019, these drugs should be on their way to human trials between this year and next. As of 2018, Lu was well on his way, raising US$10 million in seed financing, which was then the largest seed amount for a biotechnology start-up in the region.

But as we go through life in this pandemic bubble, there’s one question that’s on everyone’s minds: what about COVID-19? In a 2020 interview, Lu said that the company is in confidential discussions with various groups regarding Engine Biosciences’ role in combating the pandemic.

As vaccines start to roll out across the world, it’s only a matter of time before biotechnology and big data take the forefront. In Southeast Asia, it might just be Lu at the helm.

Engine Biosciences