"It turned out that with our technology, we could come up with new [opioid] treatment compounds. We came up with an approach."
Symmetric Computing, a tech company located at UMass Boston’s Venture Development Center, recently won a $100,000 ASPIRE Design Challenge award from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) at the National Institutes of Health.
Alumnus Richard Anderson '95 co-founded Symmetric Computing after earning three bachelor's degrees from UMass Boston, majoring in physics, computer science, and applied mathematics. He currently serves as president and chief technology officer of the company and said his team was pleasantly surprised after learning they were one of the ASPIRE Design winners.
“We thought we had a good proposal, and we thought we had a chance of winning, but I didn’t think we would—just because we weren’t Stanford or Columbia,” said Anderson, referring to schools who had also won the Design Challenge. “We’re one of very few small companies who won. I was very happy that we did because I thought we had a proposal that fought through the problem of addiction and approached it in a somewhat unique way.”
The purpose of the 2018 NCATS Design Challenge was to spur innovative research, discovery, and development of novel and effective treatments for opioid addiction. Teams were encouraged to find catalytic approaches, with an emphasis on revolutionizing the discovery, development, and pre-clinical testing of new and safer treatments for pain, opioid use disorder, and overdose.
Symmetric Computing does work in drug discovery for diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and diabetes. It wasn’t until a pharmaceutical consultant suggested that Anderson’s team look more closely at the opioid addiction crisis for the NCATS Challenge that Symmetric Computing switched gears.
“He said ‘Your technology might actually have a solution to this,’ and he suggested that we give it a try,” Anderson said. “Lo and behold, it turned out that with our technology, we could come up with new treatment compounds. We came up with an approach.”
Anderson works alongside principal scientist Kimberly Stieglitz, who was a visiting professor at UMass Boston from 2006 to 2008 and who currently teaches chemistry and biotechnology at Roxbury Community College.
“We’d been doing the work for over a year and a half. We’re getting real results. I’m seeing the virtual drug discovery platform, the computational platform that we built, predicting small molecules that would inhibit an enzyme,” said Stieglitz, explaining that she is walking a tightrope of sorts from the academic environment to the industrial environment. “My validation comes from publishing results, but if you publish too early in the drug discovery process, other folks can jump in. For us to get the grant was a sense of validation. It means we’re on the right track.”
Symmetric Computing’s winning proposal is entitled “Spectral Assay for Screening MOR Allosteric Modulators” and explores different treatment options for long-term opioid addiction.
“[Opioid addiction treatment] basically falls into two categories: one is using a replacement opioid, like methadone, and the other is using an opioid blocker,” said Anderson, adding that both approaches have side effects that are not ideal. “Using methadone, people are still addicted to an opiate, and using the blocker, it also blocks people’s internal brain chemicals, causing withdrawal symptoms. The idea was finding a chemical that would block external opioids without blocking internal brain chemicals like beta-endorphins and endomorphins.”
Using a combination of computer science and chemistry, Symmetric Computing went to work on trying to develop such a compound. After running millions of compounds through Ada, which is one of Symmetric Computing’s line of supercomputers and is named after 17th-century mathematician Ada Lovelace, they found a list of chemicals that would potentially bind.
“Kim and her interns were able to test those chemicals in a lab … to see if it would block opiates. And then we had to see if it would avoid blocking beta-endorphins and endomorphins,” said Anderson, whose team found several chemicals that met these criteria. “That’s only the very first stage to developing it into a drug.”
Symmetric Computing will use the $100,000 grant to pay off debt accrued from their drug discovery research. In addition, they have applied for another National Institutes of Health grant, with which they will use to further their studies and refine their research. In addition to advancing their work in drug discovery, Anderson would like to see the company focus on other objectives as well.
“We’re trying to build this company. We build smaller supercomputers, called departmental supercomputers, and we’ve worked in a number of different areas, drug research being only one of them. We want to continue to focus on three things. One of them is developing computer systems that we design … I think we have a better opportunity now because technology is evolving and improved. The second is continuing our work in drug discovery. The third focus is artificial intelligence. It’s a vision,” he said.