CRISPR pi­o­neer Feng Zhang co-founds a 'lim­it­less' biotech up­start with big plans for speed­ing new drug de­vel­op­ment

One of the key sci­en­tif­ic play­ers in­volved in the emer­gence of the in­cred­i­bly buzzy gene edit­ing tech CRISPR/Cas9 is back­ing a biotech start­up called Ar­bor Biotech­nolo­gies in Cam­bridge, MA, which just un­veiled what it be­lieves is a new, more ver­sa­tile CRISPR tech.

In a pa­per pub­lished to­day in Mol­e­c­u­lar Cell, two for­mer mem­bers of Feng Zhang’s lab — David Scott and Win­ston Yan — out­lined their dis­cov­ery of an en­zyme called Cas13d, which they say is con­sid­er­ably small­er and bet­ter than the rest of the Cas13 fam­i­ly of en­zymes, giv­ing it greater po­ten­tial in RNA surgery. And their pa­per was pub­lished on the same day as a sep­a­rate study out of Salk which cen­tered on the ex­act same en­zyme.

The biotech came out of stealth mode to­day with a $15.6 mil­lion round, which we’ve been track­ing, and a plan to em­ploy the new CRISPR sys­tem with a plat­form drug de­vel­op­ment tech built around ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, genome se­quenc­ing, gene syn­the­sis and screen­ing ef­forts to go about the busi­ness of find­ing new mol­e­cules. Us­ing the new CRISPR sys­tem to char­ac­ter­ize pro­teins, the group plans to play a role in the on­go­ing in­te­gra­tion of com­pu­ta­tion­al sci­ence in drug dis­cov­ery, look­ing to short­en de­vel­op­ment time­lines and im­prove on some in­cred­i­bly bad fail­ure rates.

In a call with me late Thurs­day, Scott and David Cheng, founder of the search en­gine at Ar­bor, em­pha­sized that the new pa­per on Cas13d was done en­tire­ly in-house.

“All of this is whol­ly an ef­fort at Ar­bor,” says Scott. “Feng is a co-founder, he is in­volved, but he is not an au­thor of the study, that was whol­ly per­formed in-house” at the 2-year-old biotech.

From the sum­ma­ry of the new pa­per:

The small size, min­i­mal tar­get­ing con­straints, and mod­u­lar reg­u­la­tion of Cas13d ef­fec­tors fur­ther ex­pands the CRISPR toolk­it for RNA ma­nip­u­la­tion and de­tec­tion.

At the same time, re­searchers at the Salk In­sti­tute al­so un­veiled their sci­en­tif­ic work on Cas13d, us­ing it to tai­lor RNA rather than DNA, where CRISPR made its rep.

“CRISPR has rev­o­lu­tion­ized genome en­gi­neer­ing, and we want­ed to ex­pand the tool­box from DNA to RNA,” said Salk’s Patrick Hsu. And like Feng Zhang, he be­lieves that Cas13d en­zymes are per­fect­ly suit­ed for the job, with im­pli­ca­tions for dis­ease caused by tox­ic RNA or im­prop­er­ly spliced RNA, the mes­sen­gers that trans­late DNA in­to pro­teins. Dubbed Cas­Rx, they pack­aged it in a virus and used it to tar­get the tox­ic tau known to clus­ter in the brains of Alzheimer’s pa­tients. Aimed at neu­rons, it worked in cells grown from a pa­tients with neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­or­der fron­totem­po­ral de­men­tia, re­bal­anc­ing tau lev­els.

David Scott

It will like­ly take years to prove if these young rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies — and a host of col­leagues op­er­at­ing in AI — are right, but they al­ready have the rapt at­ten­tion of every drug de­vel­op­ment or­ga­ni­za­tion on the plan­et.

David Walt of Har­vard and the Wyss In­sti­tute and co-founder of Il­lu­mi­na and Quan­ter­ix is cred­it­ed as a co-founder with Zhang along with Scott and Yan, who both worked in Zhang’s MIT lab. And they are pumped about the sci­en­tif­ic po­ten­tial.

“Ar­bor’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary plat­form ac­cel­er­ates the rate of dis­cov­ery and char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of new bio­mol­e­cules by or­ders of mag­ni­tude,” said Scott in a state­ment.

Win­ston Yan

“We are now at the cusp of be­ing able to con­vert se­quence da­ta in­to a cat­a­log of pro­tein func­tions. The pos­si­bil­i­ties are lim­it­less,” not­ed Yan.

Zhang was the prin­ci­pal sci­en­tist be­hind the emer­gence of Ed­i­tas, one of the orig­i­nal gene edit­ing star­tups to hit fol­low­ing the emer­gence of CRISPR/Cas9, a tech that sev­er­al biotechs are us­ing to ed­it out dis­ease in genes.

Kei­th Cran­dell of ARCH Ven­ture Part­ners, An­nie Ha­zle­hurst of Fari­dan Ven­tures, and sev­er­al pri­vate in­vestors are cred­it­ed with the round.


Im­age: Feng Zhang. MIT

2023 Spot­light on the Fu­ture of Drug De­vel­op­ment for Small and Mid-Sized Biotechs

In the context of today’s global economic environment, there is an increasing need to work smarter, faster and leaner across all facets of the life sciences industry.  This is particularly true for small and mid-sized biotech companies, many of which are facing declining valuations and competing for increasingly limited funding to propel their science forward.  It is important to recognize that within this framework, many of these smaller companies already find themselves resource-challenged to design and manage clinical studies themselves because they don’t have large teams or in-house experts in navigating the various aspects of the drug development journey. This can be particularly challenging for the most complex and difficult to treat diseases where no previous pathway exists and patients are urgently awaiting breakthroughs.

Rick Modi, Affinia Therapeutics CEO

Ver­tex-part­nered gene ther­a­py biotech Affinia scraps IPO plans

Affinia Therapeutics has ditched its plans to go public in a relatively closed-door market that has not favored Nasdaq debuts for the drug development industry most of this year. A pandemic surge in 2020 and 2021 opened the doors for many preclinical startups, which caught Affinia’s attention and gave the gene therapy biotech confidence in the beginning days of 2022 to send in its S-1.

But on Friday, Affinia threw in the S-1 towel and concluded now is not the time to step onto Wall Street. The biotech has put out few public announcements since the spring of this year. Endpoints News picked the startup as one of its 11 biotechs to watch last year.

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Up­dat­ed: FDA re­mains silent on or­phan drug ex­clu­siv­i­ty af­ter last year's court loss

Since losing a controversial court case over orphan drug exclusivity last year, the FDA’s Office of Orphan Products Development has remained entirely silent on orphan exclusivity for any product approved since last November, leaving many sponsors in limbo on what to expect.

That silence means that for more than 70 orphan-designated indications for more than 60 products, OOPD has issued no public determination on the seven-year orphan exclusivity in the Orange Book, and no new listings of orphan exclusivity appear in OOPD’s searchable database, as highlighted recently by George O’Brien, a partner in Mayer Brown’s Washington, DC office.

Albert Bourla, Pfizer CEO (Efren Landaos/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP Images)

Pfiz­er makes an­oth­er bil­lion-dol­lar in­vest­ment in Eu­rope and ex­pands again in Michi­gan

Pfizer is continuing its run of manufacturing site expansions with two new large investments in the US and Europe.

The New York-based pharma giant’s site in Kalamazoo, MI, has seen a lot of attention over the past year. As a major piece of the manufacturing network for Covid-19 vaccines and antivirals, Pfizer is gearing up to place more money into the site. Pfizer announced it will place $750 million into the facility, mainly to establish “modular aseptic processing” (MAP) production and create around 300 jobs at the site.

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Pfiz­er-backed Me­di­ar Ther­a­peu­tics ropes in an­oth­er Big Phar­ma in­vestor

A biotech centered on treating fibrosis — born out of Mass General and Brigham and Women’s Hospital — has received a financial boost.

According to an SEC filing, the company has raised $31,761,186 in its latest funding round, which includes 17 investors. The filing lists six names attached to the company, including Meredith Fisher, a partner at Mass General Brigham Ventures and Mediar’s acting CEO.

Vas Narasimhan, Novartis CEO (Thibault Camus/AP Images, Pool)

No­var­tis bol­sters Plu­vic­to's case in prostate can­cer with PhI­II re­sults

The prognosis is poor for metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer (mCRPC) patients. Novartis wants to change that by making its recently approved Pluvicto available to patients earlier in their course of treatment.

The Swiss pharma giant unveiled Phase III results Monday suggesting that Pluvicto was able to halt disease progression in certain prostate cancer patients when administered after androgen-receptor pathway inhibitor (ARPI) therapy, but without prior taxane-based chemotherapy. The drug is currently approved for patients after they’ve received both ARPI and chemo.

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Ken Greenberg, SonoThera CEO

Gene ther­a­py goes acoustic as ARCH-backed biotech launch­es with ul­tra­sound gene de­liv­ery plat­form

After co-founding two biotechs off virus-based therapies, one for pain and one for cancer, Ken Greenberg decided to go in a different direction for his newest biotech, SonoThera.

Based out of San Francisco, SonoThera announced Monday morning that it raised $60.75 million to develop new gene therapies — but delivered by ultrasound, which Greenberg says can address the major challenges facing more conventional viral gene therapies.

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Af­ter M&A fell through, Ther­a­peu­tic­sMD sells hor­mone ther­a­py, con­tra­cep­tive ring for $140M cash plus roy­al­ties

TherapeuticsMD, a women’s health company whose one-time billion-dollar valuation seems a distant memory as its blockbuster aspirations petered out, is finally cashing out.

Australia’s Mayne Pharma is paying $140 million upfront to license essentially TherapeuticsMD’s whole portfolio, including two prescription drugs that treat conditions relating to menopause, a contraceptive vaginal ring as well as its prescription prenatal vitamin brands.

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Big week for Alzheimer’s da­ta; As­traZeneca buys cell ther­a­py start­up; Dig­i­tal ther­a­peu­tics hits a pay­er wall; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

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