A pair of former MIT researchers think they've unlocked the next generation of mRNA using synbio 'logic circuits'
The time of mRNA is in full swing as Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech have blown the doors off the field. But in drug developers’ eyes, current-gen mRNA vaccines are just an appetizer to the full course of therapeutics further down the menu — at least that’s what two former MIT researchers with synthetic biology roots are gambling on.
Strand Therapeutics emerged from stealth Wednesday with a $52 million Series A to advance its pipeline of programmable, self amplifying mRNA therapies initially targeted at solid tumor immuno-oncology, the biotech said.
The team’s research stems from the work of CEO Jake Becraft and head of R&D Tasuku Kitada at MIT’s Synthetic Biology Center and the Weiss Lab, where the pair met and focused on applying synbio principles to mRNA therapeutic development. Along the way, their work formed Strand’s platform, which turns out long acting mRNA therapies with greater specificity and a wider therapeutic index than the current generation of mRNA vaccines.
The biotech is using self amplifying tech, which induces a single copy of the mRNA drug to replicate itself in vivo. That offers a much longer therapeutic window than cell therapies like the Covid-19 vaccines from Moderna and BioNTech, Becraft told Endpoints News, which work on the scale of days rather than weeks.
But perhaps the biggest difference from its range of competitors is Strand’s use of “genetically programmable logic circuits,” which allow its mRNA drugs to enter a specific cellular environment and turn protein expression on or off depending on a series of biomarkers. It’s a formula familiar in synthetic biology: Use “sensors” to identify the target environment, “logic process” or compute those signals, and then effect a target output.
The company’s synbio platform serves a dual purpose of allowing tight control over RNA self-replication, ensuring the therapy is only around in the cell as long as it needs to be.
“One of the major problems with self replication mRNA is that you actually need to control their replication at a much tighter level — and that’s actually what synthetic biology is really perfect for,” Becraft said. “You go into the sequence of the replication machinery and you can make modifications to how it replicates and actually control it.”
All that, ultimately, means one drug could theoretically have an effect on a range of disease types — particularly in a heterogeneous therapeutic area such as cancer. No surprise, then, that cancer is exactly where Strand is aiming first.
The biotech is hoping to take its lead drug, which is focused in the solid tumor I/O space into the clinic by 2022. The compound is the target of a licensing pact with Chinese drugmaker BeiGene, which has pledged to cover some development and commercialization costs in the region. Cancer is no easy area to jump headfirst into, but it is a profitable one. Becraft highlighted the field’s well-established biology as ripe with big targets for Strand’s drugs.
“I think cancer is a great first target for things like the next generation of RNA therapeutics because cancer has a lot of known targets and known biology for therapeutic intervention,” Becraft said. “It just gives you a great starting point to develop a new platform. Cancer kills people; we gotta do something.”
Becraft said his company would look to sign similar deals in the coming months, aiming to sign on “highly strategic” partners to advance Strand’s pipeline and commercial opportunities.
It’s the first go-round as CEO for Becraft, who made the jump straight from MIT as he worked to build Strand in stealth mode alongside Kitada starting in 2018. He said his first priorities are driving the company’s lead program ahead while building the pipeline and adding a strong team around him. The company is currently on a hiring spree with 25 on board and hopes to hit as many as 80 employees as it nears the clinic, Becraft said.
The Series A round was joined by a syndicate of investors in Redmile Group, BeiGene and Camford Capital, as well as existing investors Playground Global and ANRI.