Looking to build new smart cells, BlueRock teams with Tim Lu's Senti Bio in 'second-order' engineering alliance
The company, CEO Emile Nuwaysir explains, doesn’t just want to recreate the healthy human cell — as they’ve done in Parkinson’s — but also to manipulate it or add whole new features: a so-called kill-switch that allows doctors to control cells after they’ve been implanted, for example, or molecular “sensors” that prevent the cell from functioning anywhere but in the precise tissue it’s needed.
“Some of that is pretty simple,” Nuwaysir said. “But some of that is second-order engineering.”
For that second-order engineering, Nuwaysir decided BlueRock could use some help. On Wednesday, they signed a collaboration with Senti Bio, the synthetic biology and cell circuitry biotech founded and led by MIT’s Tim Lu. The two groups will work on developing molecular “sensors” and “dials” BlueRock can program into their cell therapies.
Outside of Parkinson’s, BlueRock has yet to disclose any of their programs, except to say they are among the vast number of diseases and cell types that fall under the categories of immunology, neurology, and cardiology. So Nuwaysir was reluctant to talk about specifics.
He said, however, that the partners would focus on feats of engineering more difficult than adding a kill switch or other small modifications. Instead, they’ll try to use Senti’s knowledge of the intricate genetic circuitry that govern how cells function to create cell therapies that only turn “on” when they see a particular marker of a disease, in the area central to that disease: for example, when the tissue is inflamed and they’re next to a specific cell type.
Senti has demonstrated one of the ways that approach can work in cancer. In a process called logic-gating, they equip a T cell with a receptor for a protein expressed on both tumors and healthy tissues. When the cell sees that protein, it doesn’t attack, like standard CAR-T would. Instead, it activates a second receptor and, like nuclear submarines that fire only when both crew members turn their keys, only attacks if the second receptor finds its target. The method can in theory prevent CAR-T from inadvertently destroying healthy cells.
The companies also indicated in their release that they would program circuits that let doctors finely tune the cells’ function with small molecules — essentially a brightness and dimming switch, rather than a kill switch.
Nuwaysir wouldn’t give timelines for the collaboration, except to say that it was very early stage: Don’t expect it to impact Parkinson’s, which they hope to bring into the clinic soon, or any of the programs in development behind it.
“It requires a level of sophistication that the field is just learning,” he said.