Director: Dr Atul Butte
City: San Francisco, CA
Headcount: 41 faculty members, another 100 staff, post-doctoral research fellows, and graduate students
Investors and amount raised: A $10 million philanthropic gift from Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg
Industry: Biomedical informatics research, computational biology, and big data analyticsWhat if it is possible to treat lung cancer with an antidepressant? What if drugs originally used to kill parasites can actually cure liver cancer too? Can you solve your hair growth problem with a cardiac drug? And can pulmonary hypertension in babies be cured using the same molecule present in Viagra? What if there was Tinder or a Match.com for medicines too? Or maybe there is, if Dr Atul Butte is to be believed!
All the above examples are true, but the problem with each of them is that people stumbled across different uses of medicines by accident. Butte, an MD and the Director of UC San Francisco, is also the Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg Distinguished Professor at UCSF. With a $10 million gift from the Zuckerbergs to support his work, Butte is spearheading a method of research that he calls “data recycling.”
In simple terms, instead of finding these drugs accidentally, how about we find them on purpose using publicly available data?
Butte, who also leads the UCSF’s Institute for Computational Health Sciences (IHCS), believes that the “trillion points of data” available in public can lead humankind to find a solution for all healthcare-related factors such as repurposing FDA-approved drugs for new diseases or to find better ways to keep patients healthy and safe.
Butte has authored over 200 publications and was recognised by the Obama Administration as an Open Science Champion of Change for promoting science through publicly available data. However, Butte has a clear objective – researchers have to get out of the mould of publishing papers and actually develop solutions to treat diseases.
A miracle in making?
Public data is already said to be of extremely high quality, but what we have is a deluge. Butte cites the example of NASA. The space agency takes so many photographs in a year that they do not have enough astronomers to look at them. Another problem with scientific data is that it sits in silos and is only meant for a specific-use case. Data to treat cancer is always looked through the prism of cancer medication, while the same data could be used to treat something absolutely unrelated.
ICHS seeks to collect and integrate vast and dissimilar datasets to advance understanding of biological processes. It wants to determine mechanisms of disease, and inform diagnosis, prevention and treatment. Butte says that the $10 million gift from Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg is being used to launch this institute. He says that the funds would be used to support faculty recruitment to UCSF, and for building a software and data infrastructure within the institute, and across the state-wide University of California system, including five major academic medical centres.
“I saw that many of the best scientists now have to release their raw measurement data to the public, as part of the process of getting a manuscript peer-reviewed and accepted into top journals. I realised that we could “connect” the data on drugs and diseases to computationally predict drugs that could potentially reverse the effect of diseases, and thus those drugs could serve as a therapeutic for those diseases,” he says.
At UCSF, electronic health records (EHRs) were referred to for three years. Work is already underway. For example, browsing through data from the medical record system, the physicians were able to find a virtual glucose-monitoring system that reduced the proportion of patients who were hyperglycemic by nearly 40%.
What Butte aims to do in simple terms is drug re-positioning – can an old medicine treat a new or another disease? It is not about getting a new drug out in the market, but finding a new use for an old drug that we already have. This is significant because big pharma spends billions of dollars and decades of research to come up with new drugs. Patients, sadly, do not have the luxury of time.
Butte and his team has ensured they make a meaningful impact by forming startups that can carry on their hypothesis, once they arrive at it. “If you want to change lives, you cannot keep writing papers about it. It should not be a taboo to talk about companies if that is the way it is going to happen. Science needs to continue outside academia,” says Butte.
A startup, NuMedii, has been spun off and is in charge of commercialising drugs discovered in this manner. Led by Tarangini Deshpande, NuMedii has partnered with several well-known pharmaceutical companies, including Allergan and Astellas. “With the right partnerships and successful further stage clinical trials, drugs could be ready for patients in 3-5 years,” says Butte.
Butte says that several of the drug candidates are going through the patent process at present. He explains, “With the right partnerships and successful further stage clinical trials, drugs could be ready for patients in three to five years. UCSF receives funding for academic research from the US Government, especially from the National Institutes of Health. The commercial work in NuMedii has been funded by venture capitalists and investors, initially including Lightspeed Venture Partners and Claremont Creek Ventures.”
Unfortunately, he says that the drugs may be available in India only after a while. He explains, “Right now, the cost of newly approved drugs is getting higher, and this has been attributed to the growing costs of drug development. We have drugs costing as high as $750,000 for one year of treatment. I do not believe these newer drugs are going to be affordable in India, which is a real tragedy.” Although Butte believes that if the cost to develop drugs drops, he and his team can get to lower priced drugs.
“In October 2013, I received an email from a 48-year-old patient in Europe who wanted to join the clinical trial at Stanford testing the effect of an anti-depressant for small cell lung cancer. Reading his story was particularly poignant to me, as I realized that if academics, data scientists, and startup company founders did not start to develop drugs for his condition, likely no one was going to have a drug for him. We must find more efficient ways to discover drugs,” says Butte.