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

Biotech Half­time Re­port: Af­ter a bumpy year, is biotech ready to re­bound?

The biotech sector has come down firmly from the highs of February as negative sentiment takes hold. The sector had a major boost of optimism from the success of the COVID-19 vaccines, making investors keenly aware of the potential of biopharma R&D engines. But from early this year, clinical trial, regulatory and access setbacks have reminded investors of the sector’s inherent risks.

RBC Capital Markets recently surveyed investors to take the temperature of the market, a mix of specialists/generalists and long-only/ long-short investment strategies. Heading into the second half of the year, investors mostly see the sector as undervalued (49%), a large change from the first half of the year when only 20% rated it as undervalued. Around 41% of investors now believe that biotech will underperform the S&P500 in the second half of 2021. Despite that view, 54% plan to maintain their position in the market and 41% still plan to increase their holdings.

UP­DAT­ED: Boehringer nabs FDA's first in­ter­change­abil­i­ty des­ig­na­tion for its Hu­mi­ra com­peti­tor — but will it mat­ter?

The FDA late Friday awarded Boehringer Ingelheim the first interchangeability designation for its Humira biosimilar Cyltezo, meaning that when it launches in July 2023, pharmacists will be able to automatically substitute the Boehringer’s version for AbbVie’s mega-blockbuster without a doctor’s input.

The designation will likely give Boehringer, which first won approval for Cyltezo in 2017, the leg up on a crowded field of Humira competitors.

Bio­gen hit by ALS set­back with PhI­II fail­ure for tofersen — but fol­lows a fa­mil­iar strat­e­gy high­light­ing the pos­i­tive

Patients and analysts waiting to hear Sunday how Biogen’s SOD1-ALS drug tofersen fared in Phase III didn’t have to wait long for the top-line result they were all waiting for. The drug failed the primary endpoint on significantly improving the functional and neurologic decline of patients over 28 weeks as well as the extension period for continued observation.

In fact, there was very little difference in response.

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Scott Struthers, Crinetics CEO

Cri­net­ics spins out ra­dio­phar­ma ef­forts in­to a new com­pa­ny, high­light­ing the grow­ing field­'s al­lure

Largely known for its nonpeptide small molecule research, Crinetics has been keeping its radiopharma work comparatively under wraps. But that changed Monday afternoon as the California biotech spun out a new company focused solely on the burgeoning field.

Crinetics launched Radionetics after the closing bell Monday, the company announced, seeding the new entity with $30 million raised from 5AM Ventures and Frazier Healthcare Partners. Radionetics will start with its own radiopharma-centric platform and a pipeline of 10 programs aimed at solid tumors.

Amit Etkin, Alto Neuroscience CEO (Alto via Vimeo)

A star Stan­ford pro­fes­sor leaves his lab for a start­up out to re­make psy­chi­a­try

About five years ago, Amit Etkin had a breakthrough.

The Stanford neurologist, a soft-spoken demi-prodigy who became a professor while still a resident, had been obsessed for a decade with how to better define psychiatric disorders. Drugs for depression or bipolar disorder didn’t work for many patients with the conditions, and he suspected the reason was how traditional diagnoses didn’t actually get at the heart of what was going on in a patient’s brain.

Two drug­mak­ers hit with PDU­FA date de­lays from FDA amid back­log of in­spec­tions

As the FDA is weighed down with more and more pandemic responsibilities, the agency is beginning to miss PDUFA dates with more frequency too. Two different companies on Monday said they received notices that the FDA has not completed their drug reviews on time.

The review of an NDA for Avadel Pharmaceuticals’ candidate treatment for narcolepsy is not coming this month, the company said, and the review of UCB’s BLA for bimekizumab, used to treat moderate to severe plaque psoriasis, will miss its target date as well.

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Reshma Kewalramani, Vertex CEO (YouTube)

Ver­tex gets much-need­ed win with ‘ex­tra­or­di­nary’ first pa­tient re­sults on po­ten­tial di­a­betes cure

Vertex said Monday that the first patient dosed with its cell therapy for type 1 diabetes saw their need for insulin injections vanish almost entirely, a key early step in the decades-long effort to develop a curative treatment for the chronic disease.

The patient, who had suffered five potentially life-threatening hypoglycemic — or low blood sugar — episodes in the year before the therapy, was injected with synthetic insulin-producing cells. After 90 days, the patient’s new cells produced insulin steadily and ramped up their insulin production after a meal like normal cells do, as measured by a standard biomarker for insulin production.

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Covid-19 vac­cine boost­ers earn big thumbs up, but Mod­er­na draws ire over world sup­ply; What's next for Mer­ck’s Covid pill?; The C-suite view on biotech; 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.

You may remember that at the beginning of this year, Endpoints News set a goal to go broader and deeper. We are still working towards that, and are excited to share that Beth Snyder Bulik will be joining us on Monday to cover all things pharma marketing. You can sign up for her weekly Endpoints MarketingRx newsletter in your reader profile.

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No­var­tis de­vel­op­ment chief John Tsai: 'We go deep in the new plat­form­s'

During our recent European Biopharma Summit, I talked with Novartis development chief John Tsai about his experiences over the 3-plus years he’s been at the pharma giant. You can read the transcript below or listen to the exchange in the link above.

John Carroll: I followed your career for quite some time. You’ve had more than 20 years in big pharma R&D and you’ve obviously seen quite a lot. I really was curious about what it was like for you three and a half years ago when you took over as R&D chief at Novartis. Obviously a big move, a lot of changes. You went to work for the former R&D chief of Novartis, Vas Narasimhan, who had his own track record there. So what was the biggest adjustment when you went into this position?

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