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

Qual­i­ty Con­trol in Cell and Gene Ther­a­py – What’s Re­al­ly at Stake?

In early 2021, Bluebird Bio was forced to suspend clinical trials of its gene therapy for sickle cell disease after two patients in the trial developed cancer. As company scientists rushed to assess whether there was any causal link between the therapy and the cancer cases, Bluebird’s stock value plummeted – as did those of multiple other biopharma companies developing similar therapies.

While investigations concluded that the gene therapy was unlikely to have caused cancer, investors and the public may be more skittish regarding the safety of gene and cell therapies after this episode. This recent example highlights how delicate the fields of cell and gene therapy remain today, even as they show great promise.

Brad Bolzon (Versant)

Ver­sant pulls the wraps off of near­ly $1B in 3 new funds out to build the next fleet of biotech star­tups. And this new gen­er­a­tion is built for speed

Brad Bolzon has an apology to offer by way of introducing a set of 3 new funds that together pack a $950 million wallop in new biotech creation and growth.

“I want to apologize,” says the Versant chairman and managing partner, laughing a little in the intro, “that we don’t have anything fancy or flashy to tell you about our new fund. Same team, around the same amount of capital, same investment strategy. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But then there’s the flip side, where everything has changed. Or at least speeded into a relative blur. Here’s Bolzon:

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Law pro­fes­sors call for FDA to dis­close all safe­ty and ef­fi­ca­cy da­ta for drugs

Back in early 2018 when Scott Gottlieb led the FDA, there was a moment when the agency seemed poised to release redacted complete response letters and other previously undisclosed data. But that initiative never gained steam.

Now, a growing chorus of researchers are finding that a dearth of public data on clinical trials and pharmaceuticals means industry and the FDA cannot be held accountable, two law professors from Yale and New York University write in an article published Wednesday in the California Law Review.

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Novavax CEO Stanley Erck at the White House in 2020 (Andrew Harnik, AP Images)

As fears mount over J&J and As­traZeneca, No­vavax en­ters a shaky spot­light

As concerns rise around the J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines, global attention is increasingly turning to the little, 33-year-old, productless, bankruptcy-flirting biotech that could: Novavax.

In the now 16-month race to develop and deploy Covid-19 vaccines, Novavax has at times seemed like the pandemic’s most unsuspecting frontrunner and at times like an overhyped also-ran. Although they started the pandemic with only enough cash to last 6 months, they leveraged old connections and believers into $2 billion and emerged last summer with data experts said surpassed Pfizer and Moderna. They unveiled plans to quickly scale to 2 billion doses. Then they couldn’t even make enough material to run their US trial and watched four other companies beat them to the finish line.

FDA of­fers scathing re­view of Emer­gent plan­t's san­i­tary con­di­tions, em­ploy­ee train­ing af­ter halt­ing pro­duc­tion

The FDA wrapped up its inspection of Emergent’s troubled vaccine manufacturing plant in Baltimore on Tuesday, after halting production there on Monday. By Wednesday morning, the agency already released a series of scathing observations on the cross contamination, sanitary issues and lack of staff training that caused the contract manufacturer to dispose of millions of AstraZeneca and J&J vaccine doses.

Jenny Rooke (Genoa Ventures)

Ear­ly Zymer­gen in­vestor Jen­ny Rooke re­flects on 'chimeras' in biotech, what it takes to spot a $500M gem

When Jenny Rooke first heard of Zymergen back in 2014, she knew she was looking at something different and exciting. The Emeryville, CA biotech held the promise of blending biology and technology to solve a huge unmet need for cost-effective chemicals — of all things — and a stellar founding team to boot.

But back then, West Coast venture capitalists didn’t see in Zymergen the one thing they were looking for in a winning biotech: therapeutic potential. Rooke, however, saw an opportunity and made her bets. Seven years later, that bet is paying off in a big way.

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Saurabh Saha at Endpoints News' #BIO19

On the heels of $250M launch, Centes­sa barges ahead with an IPO to fu­el its 10-in-1 Medicxi pipeline

Francesco De Rubertis made no secret of IPO plans for Centessa, his 10-in-1 legacy play. Barely two months later, the S-1 is in.

The hot-off-the-press filing depicts the same grand vision that the longtime VC touted when he did the rounds in February: Take the asset-centric mindset that he’s been preaching at Medicxi over the years, and roll up a bunch of biotech upstarts, with unrelated risk profiles, into 1 pharma company that can carry on the development at scale.

From left: James Brown, Michael Chambers, John Ballantyne

Alde­vron founders back a biotech start­up that's look­ing to end the moral de­bate over cell lines once and for all

For millions of Catholics around the world, the development of new vaccines to combat Covid-19 has sparked a moral dilemma. All the approved vaccines in use relied — in some fashion — on cell lines that were derived from aborted fetal tissue.

While church leaders accepted the vaccines and recommended their use to end the pandemic, a number also highlighted their preference for the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna over the J&J and AstraZeneca shots, which they noted were more heavily dependent on cell lines that they found morally objectionable.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP Images)

Sen­a­tors to NIH: Do more to pro­tect US bio­med­ical re­search from for­eign in­flu­ence

Although Thursday’s Senate health committee hearing was focused on how foreign countries and adversaries might be trying to steal or negatively influence biomedical research in the US, the only country mentioned by the senators and expert witnesses was China.

Committee chair Patty Murray (D-WA) made clear in her opening remarks that the US cannot “let the few instances of bad actors” overshadow the hard work of the many immigrant researchers in the US, many of which have won Nobel prizes for their work. But she also said, “There is more the NIH can be doing here.”