Seer raises another $55M and finally reveals proteomic tech — can it hold up?
Two years ago, Omid Farokhzad left his prominent nano-medicine lab at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and moved across the country to found a startup off technology that, he said, could change the field of proteomics — and, with it, parts of medicine, agriculture and a range of fields.
Today, Farokhzad has finally revealed what that technology is. In a Nature Communications paper, he showed how his company, Seer, and their lead product, called the Proteograph, can use nanoparticles to analyze the protein compositions in a single blood sample, like a fishing net webbing the contents of a particular swath of sea. Or — to use the company’s preferred metaphor — like a sequencing machine reading out the base pairs on a particular strand of DNA.
Alongside the publication, Seer also announced a new $55 million round to help launch the product, bringing its total financing to over $150 million.
“We now enable what was previously not possible,” Farokhzad told Endpoints News. “Today about every 25 seconds, someone [can] sequence another’s human genome. This technology allows you to begin to interrogate the human proteome in an unbiased way, deep, in … speed and scale.”
It’s a bold talk for a field full of it, although it’s now at least burnished by peer-reviewed data — something that cannot be said for all of Seer’s competitors. The proteome has long been a source of fascination for scientists, for the simple fact that we’re built of proteins, and changes in the concentration or shape of proteins are what ultimately underlie changes in function and disease.
The problem is that it’s far harder to get a complete picture of someone’s proteins than it is of their genes. Genes are comparatively simple: 4 base pairs, each of which can only bind in one direction. Proteins can be made of up to 20 amino acids that bind in myriad ways. They can also change after translation. The technological or computing power simply did not exist to analyze all of them at a rate comparable to how researchers can analyze genes.
That’s changed to a degree in recent years. Several companies have popped up, most notably SomaLogic, offering to screen people’s blood for a limited set of proteins data have indicated correlates with disease. Researchers also have techniques to map out every protein in a blood sample, but it can take months.
Seer claims to be able to do screening in a “fast and unbiased way,” similar to how we can now analyze genes — a quick and complete picture. A new company, called Nautlius, launched this year with over $100 million from prominent tech funds with a similar promise, but they are earlier stage and have yet to disclose their tech. And everyone is comparing themselves to Illumina, the $60 billion sequencing giant, which itself has a proteomics division.
“The key variable that next-gen sequencing and in particular that Illumina technology changed was the ability to access the genome or the transcriptome in an unbiased, deep way, rapidly and at scale,” Omead Ostadan, a former Illumina executive who was recently named Seer’s COO and president, told Endpoints. With Seer’s proteomics tech, “you enable enormous depth and breadth analogous to the biologic insight that emerged when you could [first] access genomic information.”
Seer has developed over 250 nanoparticles for its Proteograph. These different particles, when put in the blood, attract different proteins that bond to chemical groups on the surface, forming a “corona,” or a kind of molecular halo around the protein. Other proteins then bind to those proteins and so on. Not every nanoparticle will bind to every protein, but if you put in enough, the different coronas will give a kind of picture both of what proteins exist and if those proteins have changed shape.
As a proof of concept, the company looked at samples from early-stage non-small cell lung cancer patients and found proteins that correlated with disease.
This kind of analysis, Farokhzad said, could be used to diagnose patients early — a goal shared by well-backed liquid biopsy companies like GRAIL and Karius. It could also, he said, be used to find new proteins associated with cancer, and those proteins could then become biomarkers or targets for new therapies. There are also applications in agriculture and environmental science.
For now, the company is focused on building new nanoparticles and launching the product next year, before finding new applications. They’ll have to seal partners and buyers, who in turn will be able to say if the product is just as transformational as they claim.
“It sounds simple, but having lived through product development and commercialization, there’s a lot to do,” Ostadan said.