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