Dr. Anitha Jayaprakash: A Datacentric Approach to Treat Autoimmune Patients

Maya
7 min readFeb 23, 2023

Meet the founder whose mission is to create tools that monitor, diagnose and treat patients effectively.

She is raising $3M from investors who are on the same mission. To email her: anitha@girihlet.com

Millions of people suffer from complex autoimmune disease and challenges daily, such as RA, AS, Hashimotos, Celiac, joint pain, mysterious rashes and more.

There are more than 80 types of autoimmune diseases that affect a wide range of body parts. Autoimmune disease happens when the body’s natural defense system misidentifies the body’s own cells as being foreign, and starts attacking them, resulting in damage to tissues.

Dr. Anitha Jayaprakash, CEO and founder of Girihlet, saw a big problem to be solved for millions of patients who were being prescribed drugs to treat the painful symptoms, and consequently suffered from drug interactions with debilitating side effects. In her own words, she shares her mission of building a company that would create the tools to monitor, diagnose and treat patients effectively.

Dr. Anitha Jayaprakash

Anitha says, “Our goal is to bring a data-centric approach to treat autoimmune patients. No one size fits all approach works because everyone’s immune system is so unique. We saw these differences in patients responding to COVID. Powerful drugs are used to suppress your immune system, so one has to be careful about the side effects from these immune suppressants, steroids, TNF inhibitors, etc. which can be dangerous. We have to be careful, there is no objective way to measure the effects of the treatments on autoimmune patients today. We’d like to change that by enabling monitoring of an individual’s immune response to these drugs, which will also allow customization of treatments for individuals.

When asked what are the first steps and resources needed, Anitha says, “It’s important to understand immune system profiles by trying out various tools to generate accurate data. We spent a lot of time creating a powerful method that uses 1 ml or 0.2 teaspoons of blood through a blood draw. We can then look at thousands of data points within an immune system. The next step was to build analytical tools to evaluate the thousands of data points. The challenge was trying to derive patterns, analyze and comprehend them”

When facing this challenge, there were several things to consider.

“Was it a very dynamic system? Or was there some kind of stability that could be modified clinically, and then translated to a clinical product? Remember, that we were measuring thousands of data points from an individual. If they were sleeping properly, drinking extra coffee, and making routine changes, would those activities affect the data points? We were basically trying to measure the noise in the system, and found that it was indeed a very stable system that could be used clinically”, Anitha says.

“My co-founder, Ravi and I developed a tool called “Tseek”, which is the Artificial Intelligence component of the Immune Scanner, our new clinical product. We moved on from working with mice and the healthy human population, and now we’d like to monitor the autoimmune disease population. We’re very excited to partner with Mayo clinic to begin this process by monitoring patients who have been diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis and training ImmuneScanner to recognize patterns in the data”

Beginning the study at the Mayo Clinic with Ankylosing Spondylitis patients will shed light on treatments for all autoimmune diseases.

“If there was a magic wand to wave in terms of resources needed, having a CLIA lab would be great, so we can do this in house! Having infrastructure to process high volumes efficiently, rapidly and inexpensively would be good. We’d also like to build a powerful analytical team,” Anitha says.

Acceptance for the use of Girihlet’s test/assay may present some hurdles with insurance companies or big pharma brands. Patients and doctors will hopefully demand the technology.

“Our first investors at IndieBio/SOSV and True Ventures helped us become focused on the immune system, since the application of our technology could be used very broadly. With their support we have been able to go on to build the tools to accurately collect data, analyze the data, measure it and create a clinical product. We have been able to generate revenue from working with customers in academia. Our customers generated different biological questions that were answered using our tool/assay. This research has also resulted in 6 publications so far”, Anitha says.

Investors are typically looking for speed, and investing in biotech can be a slow journey. It takes time depending on the technology being developed.

“A lot of tech investors are looking for speed. Some experiments we were doing took up to 6 months to complete. We also wanted to develop an amazing product, so we compromised on the speed as we wanted to collect better data points. With a smaller team and less resources it takes patience,” Anitha says.

“Now we’d like to prepare to raise our Series A to fund extensions to the Mayo Clinic Study to be expanded to a clinical trial. We recently raised a Bridge Round from Ian Weisberger, an autoimmune patient who desperately wanted help for his own condition. Based on his experience with AS treatments, Ian learned quickly that his insurance would cover a specific medication, but some caused adverse reactions, and others didn’t work. It took many rounds of trial and error to find the best drug for him. If he had access to the ImmuneScanner (our clinical product), he could take the test early to quickly change treatments, before suffering any side effects from prescribed drugs that were ineffective.”

Dr. Anitha Jayaprakash continued to pursue her dreams, both professionally and personally, from bringing patented technology to market to becoming a mother.

Her background story is filled with fierce determination, and she says, “I was born in Salem, India. I grew up there and was always interested in biology. I got my Bachelor’s degree in Biology and then a Masters in Genetics. I knew that I wanted to do more, specifically in America, where there was more access to resources. Nobody in my family had come to America to continue their education, and I had to find a way to come here all by myself. I applied for scholarships, and I was awarded one for a Masters in Chemistry at the University of Michigan. I decided that I could always learn something new with my second masters. Chemistry was great, but my heart and soul remained in biology, so I switched to biology and then did a PhD in human genetics and immunology. Those PhD days were so much fun, and I completed it in three and a half years. Like every other PhD I wondered what next?

After checking out the top University labs in Yale and Rockefeller for post-doctoral positions, I got a sense that even with the large amounts of funding, there lacked a sense of fun. It’s really important to me to have fun while working because you’ve dedicated so much of your life to it, it has to feel good. The alternative was to join a commercial enterprise, so I decided to join a startup with about 100 people. I quickly understood that there’s a lot of hierarchy that you have to deal with in a company, and that was difficult for me. I needed to have freedom of thought, autonomy, and the ability to express myself and drive decision making. I didn’t want to go into academia, so I considered going into entrepreneurship.

I had several patents, and one of them was for Tseek which I had developed during my PhD. I wanted to build it on my own, but one of my advisors told me it would take a lot of money and a team. That’s when I came across IndieBio and applied to the program. They help scientists commercialize big ideas, mine being the dream of getting my product used in a clinical setting.

When I turned 35, my doctor suggested that I either freeze my eggs or have a baby. At the time I was single, and I was not ready to get married and settle down and have a family. Like running a startup, being a single mom would be super tough, but I chose to go ahead with it. My son is now three years old, and becoming his mother was the best decision of my life. I have a lot of support from family and friends, which allows the time to focus on my company too.” Anitha says.

To solve big problems requires community and a system of support. We are entering a personalized medicine revolution and together we can improve healthcare for all.

Anitha says, “I don’t like giving advice to people whose individual experiences are unique to them, whether it be in parenthood or running a startup. We can’t generalize these things, just like we can’t generalize a person’s immune system. We can be there for each other to face the challenges, and provide healthier solutions. I have taken a rather solitary path, but I’ve been able to do a lot with the help of my community and funding from investors.

I hope that more doctors and patients will be open to advocating for their health, and not accept the status quo that can be driven by insurance companies and big pharma. The vast data can eventually help big pharma develop much needed precision medicine. I want to be a part of the personalized medicine revolution, that recognizes each one of us has a unique set of needs. Girihlet’s Immune Scanner Technology Suite, for me, is a dream come true, a step forward to bringing safer and pain free treatments to the millions who deserve it.”

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