Bayer fronts $65M Series A for Metagenomi, a gene therapy biotech aiming to find new CRISPR enzymes
Gene editing is all the rage in biotech these days, with the field growing in prominence especially after this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to two pioneering CRISPR scientists in Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna. And now, Bayer’s investment arm is going all-in on a new gene editing outfit.
Leaps by Bayer is co-leading a $65 million Series A round for Metagenomi, a biotech launched by UC Berkeley scientists that emerged from stealth on Thursday. Humboldt Fund is co-leading the round with Leaps. Metagenomi, which will be run by Berkeley researcher Brian Thomas, is looking to develop a “toolbox” of both CRISPR- and non-CRISPR-based gene editing systems beyond the Cas9 protein typically seen in the field these days.
“The goal for Metagenomi is really to be able to do any type of gene editing,” Thomas told Endpoints News. “Whether that be knock-ins or knock-outs that are comparable to the current gene editing capabilities, but also to be able to do base editing through an engineering capability, as well as to be able to integrate larger pieces of DNA that will allow us to provide safer gene editing.”
Other investors in the Series A included Sozo Ventures, Agent Capital, InCube Ventures and HOF Capital.
During his time at Berkeley, Thomas was working in the lab of Jill Banfield, Metagenomi’s scientific co-founder, whose research focused on finding new CRISPR enzymes in exotic bacteria. Now at Metagenomi, Thomas’ goal is to apply machine learning on a broad scale to mine through the genomes of these microorganisms, searching for new nucleases that can be used in gene therapies.
Thomas says the company has found over 100 potential enzymes in the past year as it’s been building out its database in stealth. The main advantage of these systems, Thomas said, is that many — if not all — are much smaller than Cas9, with some being less than half the size. That would allow for much more precise medicines that limit the off-site toxicity sometimes seen with current gene therapies.
“The enzymes we have are really able to outperform the current systems in terms of editing efficiency,” Thomas said. “We’re getting editing efficiencies at greater than 90% and sometimes greater than 95%.”
It really comes down to the science of metagenomics, from which Metagenomi gets its name, Thomas said. Going beyond genomics, where you start with a lab culture, metagenomics instead looks at the genetic material recovered from soil, which contains the thousands of organisms that Metagenomi hopes to map out.
Thomas proved so successful at pitching his company, he poached away one of Leaps’ executives to be Metagenomi’s chief business officer. Despite that, Bayer is particularly excited about this startup and Leaps chief Juergen Eckhardt believes Metagenomi could be at the forefront of the next generation of gene editing.
“You look at gene editing and you have these first-wave companies, they are all based on one detail: CRISPR Cas9,” Eckhardt said. “What Metagenomi has, they are sitting on thousands of nucleases that will have a range of features that may be optimized for what CRISPR can’t be able to do. I think that’s why this is the next two, three, four, five waves of gene editing are right here.”
Metagenomi is still an early-stage company and Thomas isn’t divulging what kinds of drugs they’re aiming to develop as of yet, but noted a broad interest in cancers and immuno-oncology. On top of that, Metagenomi’s enzymes would still need to be paired up with a delivery system to get the therapy where it needs to go.
But for now, Metagenomi will keep plugging away in order to validate its technology. Thomas said that, as a biochemist, it’s exciting to look at some of these organisms that have never been seen under a microscope before that potentially hold the key to the next cell therapies.
“Metagenomics is a very powerful science, and I think Metagenomi is a clear leader in using that science to develop and tap into this available, natural cellular machinery out there that can be used,” Thomas said. “We’re excited about what nature has to offer as we dig deeper into this dataset.”