Com­put­er sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing, meet drug R&D. MIT star Tim­o­thy Lu in­ter­twines tech­nolo­gies for an off­beat biotech launch

At 37, Tim­o­thy Lu’s life and work has al­ready spanned sev­er­al sci­en­tif­ic dis­ci­plines and cul­tures. He’s lived in Asia and the US, and af­ter gath­er­ing de­grees in elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing and com­put­er sci­ence at MIT, he struck out to pick up his med­ical de­gree at Har­vard Med and then a PhD at the Har­vard-MIT Health Sci­ences and Tech­nol­o­gy Med­ical En­gi­neer­ing and Med­ical Physics Pro­gram.

Knit­ting that all to­geth­er at the Syn­thet­ic Bi­ol­o­gy Group at MIT, Lu has be­come one of the pi­o­neers in the field, tack­ling dis­ease by cre­at­ing a ge­net­ic cir­cuit pro­gram­ming plat­form that could one day start fix­ing the er­rant code in our ge­net­ics that trig­gers dis­ease.

Af­ter help­ing found a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent star­tups, Lu’s fas­ci­na­tion with adap­tive ther­a­pies is push­ing him to launch a new biotech which is com­ing out for its first pub­lic bow af­ter rais­ing $53 mil­lion to cre­ate next-gen cell and gene ther­a­pies at a start­up dubbed Sen­ti Bio­sciences.

Lu is once again on the move, re­lo­cat­ing on sab­bat­i­cal to take the helm of the start­up in the Bay Area as its found­ing CEO. He’s work­ing along­side co-founder Philip Lee, a bio­engi­neer­ing ex­pert with a Berke­ley PhD and an en­tre­pre­neur­ial record at Cel­lA­SIC, a mi­croflu­idics ven­ture which was snapped up by Mer­ck KGaA. Long­time men­tor and MIT pro­fes­sor Jim Collins — who helped found Syn­log­ic with Lu — is along for the ride. And cell en­gi­neer­ing ex­pert Wil­son Wong out of Boston Uni­ver­si­ty is al­so of­fer­ing in­put on the sci­ence.

“I’ve been work­ing in this area for quite a while,” says Lu. “The field re­al­ly has evolved over the past 18 years. We are at the point where we can build fair­ly so­phis­ti­cat­ed ge­net­ic con­structs.”

Fur­ther out on the time hori­zon, it may be pos­si­ble to one day cre­ate a net­work of dis­ease sen­sors that could trig­ger a re­sponse that would stop dis­ease be­fore it ever be­gins. But Lu and his team are acute­ly aware that they’re in the prac­ti­cal prod­uct con­struc­tion phase, build­ing on ear­li­er work that, for in­stance, in­volved de­vel­op­ing an im­munomod­u­la­to­ry gene cir­cuit plat­form that “en­ables tu­mor-spe­cif­ic ex­pres­sion of im­munos­tim­u­la­tors” which could over­come the lim­i­ta­tions of anti­gen dri­ven ther­a­pies.

Lu stress­es that he has his eye on fil­ing an IND in the not too dis­tant fu­ture. Along the way he’d like to at­tract phar­ma part­ners. And the core team of 20 will now ex­pand to close to 40 staffers.

“Our goal is to pur­sue clin­i­cal ap­pli­ca­tions, move to­ward an IND,” he says. And they have the fund­ing to get a lead can­di­date and get close to en­ter­ing the clin­ic in the next 2.5 to 3 years.

The team brings to­geth­er sci­en­tists and ad­vi­sors that al­so span nu­mer­ous fields, com­ing from MIT, the Wyss In­sti­tute at Har­vard, MD An­der­son, Boston Uni­ver­sityand ETH Zurich. His syn­di­cate al­so re­flects an un­usu­al blend of bio­phar­ma and some tech in­vestors you usu­al­ly don’t find mix­ing in the drug de­vel­op­ment world. New En­ter­prise As­so­ci­ates led the round, with par­tic­i­pa­tion from 8VC, Am­gen Ven­tures, Pear Ven­tures, Lux Cap­i­tal, Men­lo Ven­tures, Allen & Com­pa­ny, Nest.Bio, Omega Funds, Good­man Cap­i­tal, and Life­Force Cap­i­tal.

“De­sign­ing ge­net­ic cir­cuits is not easy,” Lu tells me. “It re­quires a lot of en­gi­neer­ing and plat­form build­ing to build, test and learn.” The au­toma­tion and com­pu­ta­tion­al tools need­ed to make it work was the kind of sto­ry that res­onat­ed with tech in­vestors, he adds.

In the mean­time, his broth­er Jef­frey is al­so at work in the Bay Area build­ing En­gine Bio­sciences, which will fo­cus more on nat­ur­al ge­net­ic cir­cuits while Tim­o­thy Lu stays fo­cused more on syn­thet­ic tech.


Im­age: Tim­o­thy Lu. MIT CAM­PAIGN FOR A BET­TER WORLD

Con­quer­ing a silent killer: HDV and Eiger Bio­Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals

Hepatitis delta, also known as hepatitis D, is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis delta virus (HDV) that results in the most severe form of human viral hepatitis for which there is no approved therapy.

HDV is a single-stranded, circular RNA virus that requires the envelope protein (HBsAg) of the hepatitis B virus (HBV) for its own assembly. As a result, hepatitis delta virus (HDV) infection occurs only as a co-infection in individuals infected with HBV. However, HDV/HBV co-infections lead to more serious liver disease than HBV infection alone. HDV is associated with faster progression to liver fibrosis (progressing to cirrhosis in about 80% of individuals in 5-10 years), increased risk of liver cancer, and early decompensated cirrhosis and liver failure.
HDV is the most severe form of viral hepatitis with no approved treatment.
Approved nucleos(t)ide treatments for HBV only suppress HBV DNA, do not appreciably impact HBsAg and have no impact on HDV. Investigational agents in development for HBV target multiple new mechanisms. Aspirations are high, but a functional cure for HBV has not been achieved nor is one anticipated in the forseeable future. Without clearance of HBsAg, anti-HBV investigational treatments are not expected to impact the deadly course of HDV infection anytime soon.

No­var­tis is ax­ing 150 ear­ly dis­cov­ery jobs as CNI­BR shifts fo­cus to the de­vel­op­ment side of R&D

Novartis is axing some 150 early discover jobs in Shanghai as it swells its staff on the drug development side of the equation in China. And the company is concurrently beefing up its investment in China’s fast-growing biotech sector with a plan to add to its investments in local VCs.

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No­var­tis is eye­ing a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar Med­Co buy­out as Jer­sey biotech nears NDA — re­ports

To get from Novartis’ US headquarters to the Medicines Company, you make a left out of a square concrete building on NJ-Route 10, follow it past the sun orange veranda of Jersey’s Hot Bagels and the inexplicable green Vermont cabin that houses the Whippany Railway Museum until you turn right and immediately arrive at a rectangular glass building. It should take you about 12 minutes.

Reports are out that Novartis may be making that trip. Amid a torrent of Phase III data burnishing MedCo’s chances at a blockbuster cholesterol drug,  Bloomberg News is reporting that Novartis is looking to acquire the Jersey-based biotech.

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UP­DAT­ED: In a land­mark first glimpse of hu­man da­ta from Ver­tex, CRISPR/Cas9 gene ther­a­py sig­nals ear­ly ben­e­fit

Preliminary data on two patients with blood disorders that have been administered with Vertex and partner CRISPR Therapeutics’ gene-editing therapy suggest the technology is safe and effective, marking the first instance of the benefit of the use of CRISPR/Cas9 technology in humans suffering from disease.

Patients in these phase I/II studies give up peripheral blood from which hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells are isolated. The cells are tinkered with using CRISPR/Cas9 technology, and the edited cells — CTX001 — are infused back into the patient via a stem cell transplant. The objective of CTX001 is to fix the errant hemoglobin gene in patents with two blood disorders: beta-thalassemia and sickle cell disease, by unleashing the production of fetal hemoglobin.

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Badrul Chowdhury. FDA via Flickr

As­traZeneca los­es an­oth­er ex­ec­u­tive to biotech, as Badrul Chowd­hury moves to Savara

Another executive is migrating from the echelons of Big Pharma to the corridors of small biotech.

In April 2018, Badrul Chowdhury took his more than two decades of experience at the FDA to AstraZeneca, where he took on the role of senior vice president and chief physician-scientist for respiratory, inflammation and autoimmunity late-stage development in biopharmaceuticals R&D.

After about a year and a half in this role, Chowdhury is moving to a small Texas biotech called Savara, where he will serve as chief medical officer.

Yiannis Kiachopoulos and Artur Saudabayev, co-founders of Causaly

Lon­don AI up­start, which counts No­var­tis as a cus­tomer, can teach your com­put­er to read

When Amazon developed a machine-learning tool to make its recruitment process more efficient — the man-made system absorbed the gender-bias of its human makers, and the project was aborted. In the field of biopharmaceuticals, the way researchers train their machine learning algorithms can skew the outcome of predictions. But before those predictions can be made, the engine must learn to read to make sense of explosive volume of knowledge out there.

Burt Adelman. Novo Ventures

Here's a $25M seed fund aimed at back­ing some brash new drug ideas out of the Broad

As a former academic and a seasoned drug developer, Burt Adelman knew when he was recruited as a senior advisor to Novo Ventures in 2017 that one of his key priorities needs to be introducing the fund to the network he was so deeply embedded in.

“I was thinking long and hard on how can I, as a Boston insider, help Novo really get inside the ecosystem of Boston biotech?” he recalled in an interview with Endpoints News.

Welling­ton lines up a $393M bankroll for its next round of pri­vate biotech bets — and they’re like­ly think­ing big

Wellington Management made some uncustomary waves at the beginning of the year when it threw its considerable weight against Bristol-Myers Squibb’s $74 billion Celgene buyout. But after Bristol-Myers’ biggest investor conceded that game to the influential proxy firms involved, they’re now going to end the year by rolling out a big new investment fund for a new stable of fledgling biotechs on the private side of the industry.

As uter­ine race with Ab­b­Vie heats up, My­ovant eyes FDA ap­proval with tri­al re­sults from prostate can­cer

Myovant has long had a secret weapon in its uterine rivalry with AbbVie: Men.

While the small Swiss biotech has jockeyed with the Illinois-based giant for a foothold in the endometriosis and uterine fibroid therapy market, the company has been developing the same lead compound, relugolix, for use in one of the most common cancers for the uterus-less: prostate cancer. Today, Myovant is out with positive topline results from its big Phase III trial on the gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) antagonist. They say they’ve reached every primary and secondary endpoint with p values less than .0001.