by Kristin Bentsen, Amgen
When Rubix Life Sciences was contacted to study swabs from sick animal models in the Asia Pacific region back in 2019, they had no idea that what they were about to find would be connected to the global pandemic we are currently experiencing and catapulting their company into a round-the-clock race against the virus.
We had the opportunity to connect with our fellow Diversity Alliance for Science member, Reginald “Reggie” Swift, Founder and CEO of Rubix Life Sciences, a small startup that builds predictive models to combat infectious and rare diseases as well as ensure diverse patient populations have access to clinical trials, to hear more about their fascinating involvement against COVID-19.
Q: From a holistic aspect, what was your initial involvement in understanding the mutation of this virus?
We received an inquiry through one of our CRO partners in the Asia Pacific region. There was a surge of issues coming from animal models where they were seeing a lot of changes and shift in evolution of sick animals such as chickens, bats, turkeys, etc. that were being used in a pre-clinical setting. They didn’t understand the phenomenon that was taking place and tapped Rubix to help them characterize what may be some of the underlying behavior and why it was impacting the ability to reproduce healthy animals, particularly in Taiwan and the Philippines.
We started to get involved in some of the characterization work and from there understood that whatever was happening was spreading much faster than people understood. We then identified and confirmed an infectious agent with specificity towards a coronavirus variant. We were able to leverage one of our databases and saw a spike in an animal strain coronavirus that took place in 2012, which was eerily similar to the strains we were now testing against. What we noticed was a specific mutation that was taking place and modeled it against what would happen if this infected a human population. Based on what we found, we knew we needed to sound the alarm. We went back to our CRO partner and said, listen, we are starting to see a mutation forming and this could jump into a human model very rapidly. In virology, it usually takes about 5-7 years to mutate, but this was mutating from animal to human within three months.
Q: What happened next, who did you alert?
We understood from using our disease surveillance tool to map infected rates and genetic anomalies & changes that there were likelihoods of mortality and very severe illness that would take place. We also saw based on disease mapping that the actual strain would mutate again, and in the air, which is why people are saying now that this virus can live in the air for three days and over four days on surfaces. We saw this happening and knew it was serious, which is what made us alert the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) to see if there was possibly a vaccine used in the past that would respond against this threat.
Q: What was the response from federal agencies?
At the time, the CDC did not pursue an option to move forward, however that did not deter us from trying to get the relevant stakeholders involved from not only from the CDC but from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Department of Defense (DoD), and the Pentagon. It took us a while to get buy-in from these agencies and by that time everyone was in a reactive process rather than proactive.
Q: How is the data and information you have now being utilized?
Now that we understand what’s happening, we’re trying to partner with larger Pharmaceutical companies who are involved in the race to accelerate a vaccine. We have also partnered with NIH to use the initial data that we pulled on how specific efficacy models have been arranged just from the genetic mutation and epigenetic framework that we’ve created to help accelerate a vaccine. More specifically, we are focusing our efforts to be able to equitably collaborate across all continents to understand the efficacy between the development work others are doing. We also are using the data we’ve developed and aggregated to predictively detect how effective one version of a treatment will have over another.
Q: How have your company’s technical innovations been impactful in this instance?
We have designed and developed a virtual platform to monitor health economics as well as a therapeutic application to get patients enrolled in virtual clinical trials for COVID-19 and we’re using information to measure minority health outcomes. This is helping us better understand and track which ethnic groups are over reporting and under reporting patient symptoms and who is getting admitted to hospitals and receiving therapies. This data is tied back to the ICD codes that the Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services (CMS) and CDC have created for this case. We are also working with about 14 different hospitals and NIH to help accelerate vaccine development leveraging the data we’re pulling.
Q: You started your company just four years ago, which means your recent work has required a very quick ramp up. How did your DA4S mentorship opportunity help you prepare for this?
One of the things I did from the get-go was to have a plan B, C, D, and E, so even though our core group was small, I always planned for expansion at any given moment and had access to a broad base of consultants that I could tap into for any given project.
We have been in the federal space since we began our journey, so we were looking at the innovations that were coming out of these areas to tell us their mission, where do they want to go to next. When COVID-19 came into the picture, we had to accelerate what we were doing, which threw us for a loop at first. DA4S mentoring prepared us to have our value proposition ready so that we were able to clearly articulate what we could achieve around COVID-19 based on our expertise in infectious diseases and to be fully prepared for those conversations.
Q: Based on what you know, can you share your thoughts for what the future holds, when can we expect to see a light at the end of the tunnel?
What I know and can share, is we are still about 12-13 months away from an actual, feasible vaccine. Also, every industry group as well as federal agencies, are heavily embracing virtualization. They understand that it’s important to minimize the exposure limits between patients and any critical staff that need to monitor health. This became front and center for us, if you will, when speaking with NIH and CDC and they are now discussing with us about designing a system to monitor emerging infectious disease rates and being able to streamline that data for the pharmaceutical companies to help accelerate vaccine development.
In the next six months, you can expect to start seeing a heavy emphasis on digitization of information flow whether it’s from access of data or to virtualize a lifecycle process for drug development, etc. Because of our current environment, those who didn’t see it before now understand the importance of this and you will begin to see an acceleration to a higher vision where innovation can take place across borders.
Q. Any parting words you would like to share?
I wish I could say there is light at the end of the tunnel, we are in the tunnel, we are seeing people get more and more anxious, this is changing our lives forever, but if people adhere to guidance, we can flatten the curve while we work to accelerate efforts to create a vaccine. By summer, hopefully the momentum of the virus will slow down significantly, and if we remain vigilant, hopefully we can get ahead of this thing.