Synthetic biology firm raises $29m

A US company set up to create engineered bacteria that can both detect and treat diseases has raised $29 million in funding from venture capitalists.

Atlas Ventures and New Enterprise Associates (NEA) have put their faith in Synlogic’s ability to make a commercial business out of synthetic biology, an emerging discipline that merges engineering with molecular biology.

“We are engineering synthetic gene circuits and using the technology to reprogram organisms to act as synthetic probiotics that can act as both living diagnostics and living therapeutics,” said Jim Collins, a synthetic biology specialist at Boston University who is one of the scientific founders of Synlogic.

“We can engineer bacteria to sense certain things in the environment – be it a physiological disease state or the presence or absence of a metabolite,” he told pharmaphorum.

“The bacteria can produce a ‘read-out’ to report on the state, and potentially produce a small molecule to remediate it,” said Collins, noting that the criteria for the therapeutic molecule is that it can be synthesises biologically and transported readily out of the cell.

The bacteria can also be programmed with various ‘kill switches’ so they become automatically deactivated when they leave the patient’s body and can also be terminated on demand if there was an adverse reaction in the patient, added Collins.

The company is now ramping up animal studies and hopes to provide some preliminary results within the next year that could prompt the start of clinical testing of a first candidate.

The primary aim is to show sensing – in other words stimulation of a promoter sequence on the intracellular gene network in response to an environmental input such as pH, temperature or the presence or absence of a molecule – as well as some degree of clinical improvement in an animal model of a disease.

Synlogic is being coy about the initial indications it may pursue but, reading between the lines, cancer and metabolic disease such as diabetes might both be on the table.

“You could envision using these engineered bugs as therapeutics – delivered in pill form for example – to treat a disease condition just like any other pharmaceutical product,” said Collins.

The amount raised in the fundraising is impressive given that the technology platform remains in its very early stages of development and will be breaking new ground from a regulatory perspective, so is further evidence of the recovery in the biotech funding environment in the US.

The company will use the funds raised to put in place the business and regulatory teams to complement the scientific backbone of Synlogic, which draws not only on Collins’ lab in Boston but also the team led by Tim Lu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), another key figure in this area.

“Bacteria have been shown to be an ideal vector for the production and delivery of drugs for many diseases – many bacteria already exist in a commensal or even mutualistic relationship with the human body, they already contain compounds and metabolic pathways that can release or produce drugs and a large proportion of diseases are bacterial,” said Collins.

“Our goal is simple – use the amazing potential of synthetic biology to play a critical role in the development of therapies that lead to improved clinical outcomes for patients.”

Links

Synthetic Biology Congress, London, 20th October 2014 – 21st October 2014

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