The first crude research involving xenotransplantation goes back to the 1960s, when investigators first actively considered the possibilities of harvesting organs from primates for use in humans. That failed, and subsequent attempts running through the mid-90s also flopped, with incompatibility proving impossible to overcome, while also raising some big fears about transferring pig viruses to humans with potentially catastrophic results.
But George Church and his celebrated team at Harvard have been using a hot new lab tool to give xenotransplantation another shot at the real world. And now the team has raised $38 million from some forward-thinking investors to see if yesterday’s science fiction can become tomorrow’s landmark reality.
Xenotransplantation “has been abandoned for the past 15 years,” says Luhan Yang, an award-winning young scientist who’s the CSO and co-founder at eGenesis. But Yang and her 10-member crew are using CRISPR gene editing technology to knock out problem antigens to address the rejection issue while proving in a preclinical setting that you can eradicate the problem virus from the pig genome, hopefully closing the door on any possible plague that could be triggered.
Yang says she’s already published her work showing the possibilities there, but she’s also quick to acknowledge just how early-stage the preclinical animal research is, and the long road ahead before this can be tested in humans.
“We have to see whether the organ is safe, compatible with the human host, before we move into the patient,” says the CSO. “2017 is a very important year for us” as eGenesis continues its work on Pigs 2.0 to address both issues.
It took some visionary VCs willing to fund some radical ideas to make this possible, says Yang. Biomatics Capital and Arch Venture Partners co-led the round with participation from Khosla Ventures, Alta Partners, Alexandria Equities, Heritage Provider Network, Berggruen Holdings North America Ltd., Uprising, and Fan Ventures. In addition, Daniel S. Lynch — the former CEO of ImClone — has joined eGenesis as executive chairman. They’ve begun the process of looking for a CEO while the team is set to grow to about 15 to 20 now that the new financing has arrived.
I wrote about Biomatics and its two managing partners yesterday. They’ve put together a $200 million fund looking for some breakthrough science to support. And it doesn’t get much more ambitious than this. Arch, meanwhile, has prided itself in bankrolling breakthrough ideas in biotech. This was tailor made for them.
Xenotransplantation may sound a little far-fetched to some, concedes Yang. But if they can get this to work, the consequences of farming tissue and organs like hearts and kidneys are enormous. In her native China, she says, the culture and religion make organ donations rare. Xenotransplantation would save a large number of lives.
For now, though, the team is keeping its timelines to itself. How much time will it take to try this in humans? It’s still to early to say, says Yang, who also didn’t want to speculate. But they’ve just taken some big steps forward with the financing.
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