Third Rock, GV back Broad spin­out Cel­sius in bid to de­vel­op pre­ci­sion meds for au­toim­mune dis­ease

Third Rock is team­ing up with Google’s ven­ture arm to back a gene ther­a­py start­up step­ping out to­day with $65 mil­lion in new mon­ey. As you might ex­pect with GV’s in­volve­ment, the new ven­ture has a tech­nol­o­gy twist, and it might have its hands on some­thing big for the au­toim­mune world.

Vi­jay Kuchroo

Are you ready for a game of buzz­word bin­go? The start­up, called Cel­sius Ther­a­peu­tics, is us­ing new tech in ge­net­ic se­quenc­ing (check) — and a pro­pri­etary ma­chine learn­ing (check) al­go­rithm (check) — to tack­le pre­ci­sion meds (check) for can­cer (check) and au­toim­mune dis­ease. I’ll break that down for you lat­er.

The tech­nol­o­gy the com­pa­ny is built on was li­censed from the Broad In­sti­tute based on the work of Aviv Regev and Vi­jay Kuchroo (both found­ing sci­en­tists at Cel­sius), in­clud­ing non-ex­clu­sive li­cens­es to sin­gle-cell se­quenc­ing tech and ex­clu­sive li­cens­es to ear­ly-stage drug pro­grams.

The com­pa­ny’s co-founder and pres­i­dent, Christoph Lengauer (a Third Rock ven­ture part­ner), tells me Cel­sius has a few things that give it an edge: a mas­sive amount of an­i­mal and hu­man da­ta to work with, a ma­chine-learn­ing al­go­rithm to make sense of that da­ta, and a new tech­nol­o­gy to se­quence sin­gle cells rather than whole genomes.

Our body has tril­lions of cells, each with ge­net­ic in­for­ma­tion stored in­side. The sets of genes vary in dif­fer­ent cell types, de­ter­min­ing a cell’s func­tion — and some­times — the code be­hind dis­ease. Hom­ing in on sin­gle cells could help re­searchers bet­ter un­der­stand the in­di­vid­ual cells and their in­ter­ac­tions that cause dis­ease, per­haps lead­ing to bet­ter ther­a­pies down the road.

When com­par­ing sin­gle cell se­quenc­ing with whole genome se­quenc­ing, Lenguaer used an anal­o­gy about mak­ing smooth­ies with fruit.

“If you put straw­ber­ries and ki­wis in a blender, the col­or of your smooth­ie will be pink be­cause it’s the dom­i­nant cell pop­u­la­tion,” Lengauer said. “Any­thing re­lat­ed to the ki­wi would be lost. That’s whole genome se­quenc­ing. With this anal­o­gy, sin­gle cell se­quenc­ing would al­low you to see the in­di­vid­ual fruits in the smooth­ie. And if some­thing was rot­ten, you could pin­point the in­di­vid­ual fruit that’s gone bad.”

Of course, we’re not talk­ing of straw­ber­ries and ki­wis, but of cells that are caus­ing dis­ease and the genes that trig­ger their mal­func­tion. Cel­sius be­lieves this tech could be the key to bring pre­ci­sion med­i­cines to au­toim­mune dis­eases for the first time.

“Many dis­eases are dri­ven by the com­bined dys­func­tion of sev­er­al spe­cif­ic cell types, and the in­ter­ac­tions be­tween them,” said Regev, the MIT pro­fes­sor who co-found­ed Cel­sius, in a state­ment. “With tra­di­tion­al ge­nom­ic se­quenc­ing, we can­not iden­ti­fy these in­di­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tions — we on­ly see the av­er­age and can miss out key crit­i­cal caus­es. But for the first time, with the ap­proach­es dis­cov­ered by our team, where we com­bine mas­sive datasets of un­prece­dent­ed size and com­plex­i­ty with so­phis­ti­cat­ed ma­chine learn­ing al­go­rithms, we are able to dis­tin­guish the spe­cif­ic cells, among many oth­ers, that play a key role in dis­ease and iden­ti­fy the genes that are trig­ger­ing their mal­func­tion. We be­lieve our ap­proach will al­low us to more ef­fi­cient­ly iden­ti­fy spe­cif­ic tar­gets for treat­ing dis­eases in spe­cif­ic pa­tients and ul­ti­mate­ly de­vel­op med­i­cines for those tar­gets.”

Us­ing this ap­proach, the Broad In­sti­tute has un­cov­ered “a hand­ful” of tar­gets in au­toim­mune con­di­tions and can­cer. Lengauer said Cel­sius hopes to reach proof of con­cept in the next five years, and the Se­ries A should take them at least part­way to­ward that goal.

While Third Rock led the re­cent round, GV par­tic­i­pat­ed along with Her­itage Provider Net­work, Cas­din Cap­i­tal, Alexan­dria Ven­ture In­vest­ments and oth­ers.

The com­pa­ny, which has been op­er­at­ing in stealth mode for the past two years, em­ploys 15 peo­ple at its Cam­bridge head­quar­ters in Kendall Square.

Im­age: Aviv Regev, Third Rock part­ner Alex­is Borisy, Christoph Lengauer. Cel­sius Ther­a­peu­tics

John Hood [file photo]

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On June 18, 2019, we initiated a confidential arbitration proceeding against Dr. Asa Abeliovich, our former consulting co-founder, related to alleged breaches of his consulting agreement and the improper use of our confidential information that he learned during the course of rendering services to us as our consulting Chief Scientific Officer/Chief Innovation Officer. We are in the early stage of this arbitration proceeding and are unable to assess or provide any assurances regarding its possible outcome.

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CEO Pascal Soriot via Getty Images

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