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

5AM Ven­tures: Fu­el­ing the Next Gen­er­a­tion of In­no­va­tors

By RBC Capital Markets
With Andy Schwab, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at 5AM Ventures

Key Points

Prescription Digital Therapeutics, cell therapy technologies, and in silico medicines will be a vital part of future treatment modalities.
Unlocking the potential of the microbiome could be the missing link to better disease diagnosis.
Growing links between academia, industry, and venture capital are spinning out more innovative biotech companies.
Biotech is now seen by investors as a growth space as well as a safe haven, fuelling the recent IPO boom.

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