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A company started by a student who dropped out of the University of Utah School of Medicine to find cures for rare diseases has been awarded a $1.46 million federal grant.

The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) will give Recursion Pharmaceuticals of Salt Lake City the grant over two years. NCATS is part of the National Institutes of Health.

The news came as advocates worldwide prepared to observe Rare Disease Day on Saturday as part of a campaign to raise awareness of the need for cures. Utah families attended a symposium on the subject at the U.

Chris Gibson, who finished his doctorate but left medical school to launch Recursion in late 2013, said the grant will help the company expand its work, which is essentially finding ways to repurpose drugs.

Rare diseases affect nearly one in 10 Americans, and there are thousands of them. Yet identifying treatments for each disease using traditional approaches doesn't pencil out for most pharmaceutical companies, which want to discover blockbuster drugs for common diseases.

Those companies have drugs that proved safe for humans, but were not effective for their initial target diseases and so never made it through clinical trials — which is where Recursion comes in, Gibson says.

"There are all these drugs sitting in freezers, and it seems likely to us that some of them could be useful," he said.

Recursion's approach is to put diseased human cells and a drug in a dish, take incredibly good pictures with a microscope camera and analyze the results with sophisticated computational software. If the cells show signs of healing, the drug might just be a cure.

The company can do this match work for thousands of diseases and thousands of known or experimental drugs.

"What we're trying to do is have a little piece of 100 drugs in 10 years, instead of a big piece of one," Gibson said.

So far, Recursion (the U. lab it came out of) has identified two possible therapies for cerebral cavernous malformation (CCM), a rare hereditary vascular disease that leads to hemorrhagic strokes.

One of the promising treatments is an over-the-counter vitamin D supplement. A study showing that the compounds successfully reduced lesions by 50 percent in a mouse model of human CCM disease was published in December in the American Heart Association's journal, Circulation.

A CCM specialist at the Mayo Clinic is testing vitamin D in humans to see if the promise pans out, the U. said in a news release. Recursion is negotiating with the maker of the second drug to co-develop or out-license it.

Those discoveries first began in the lab of Dean Li, vice dean of research for U. Health Sciences and a co-founder of Recursion.

"This is a drug discovery thing, but it's in some sense an IT play," Li says.

Blake Borgeson, the third co-founder and chief technology officer for Recursion, says the company is all about scale, efficiency and "turning drug discovery into a data-science problem," according to a recent company news release.

Gibson, who has a degree in bioengineering from Rice University, was in the U. medical school and working on a doctorate when he realized his approach was different from other researchers in Li's lab, which he had joined in 2009.

Most wanted to understand everything about why a cell and a drug would interact as they do, but Gibson saw the potential for new imaging and software technological advances to match drugs with disease.

"The idea was not to understand why but to find the drug that would fix it," he says.

He enlisted Li in the startup and recruited Borgeson, an old friend from undergraduate days who was working on a doctorate in bioinformatics at the University of Texas. Borgeson had already started several companies.

Gibson is the chief executive of the growing company, and Li spends as much time as his university schedule allows. The U. has a small — undisclosed — equity stake in the company, so if Recursion does well, the university will make money.

Gibson says he has no regrets about quitting medical school; he can always go back if Recursion fails.

"We have a 1 percent chance of having an impact on maybe 1 million people, and it seemed like it was worth taking the risk," he says.

Twitter: @KristenMoulton