$180M for Anti-Aging Biotech & CRISPR Patent Appeal

Hundreds of millions were raised for, and by, anti-aging companies. And a new protein improves mitochondrial DNA editing.

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Hello. In this issue: Hundreds of millions were raised for, and by, anti-aging companies. And a new protein improves mitochondrial DNA editing.

Mito Base Editor

New proteins can “swap out” letters in mitochondrial DNA inside of human cells. They could likely be used, in the future, to correct mutations underlying genetic disorders caused by altered, mitochondrial genes.

Base editing proteins typically use a specific RNA sequence, called a guide, that directs them to a specific location in the genome. The protein cuts out one nucleotide and replaces it with another, while leaving the rest of the DNA strand intact. Guide RNAs are difficult to deliver to mitochondria, though, and so a new approach was required.

In 2020, David Liu’s group at Harvard fused two proteins together to create a protein that can edit mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, without a guide RNA. That tool has been used to edit mitochondrial DNA in human embryos, mice, plants, and zebrafish.

Although that 2020 protein can convert a C•G base pair to T•A, it could only do so if the ‘C’ nucleotide was preceded by a ‘T’. In other words, the protein would recognize ‘ATGATAGTCATAT,’ but not ‘ATGATAGGCATAT’.

For the new study, Liu’s group used directed evolution to do two things:

  1. Expand the range of positions in the mitochondrial genome at which the base editor could swap nucleotides.
  2. Increase the activity and specificity of the base editor.

By evolving their prior protein design in the lab, Liu’s team made base-editing variants that had a “4.3-fold average improvement in mtDNA base editing efficiency at TC targets compared to wild-type” protein, according to the paper. And the new variants were 2-3x better at recognizing, and editing, AC and CC targets.

“These variants collectively enable the installation or correction of C•G-to-T•A point mutations at both TC and non-TC targets, substantially expanding the overall utility” of mitochondrial base editing, the authors say.

Read more at Nature Biotechnology.

Anti-Aging Funding Boom

An anti-aging startup, called Retro Biosciences, has launched with $180 million from anonymous investors. Based in Redwood City, California, the company aims to “increase healthy human lifespan by ten years,” according to their website. They will develop therapies focused on “cellular reprogramming, plasma-inspired therapeutics, and autophagy,” or cell death. Right now, the company has just over a dozen employees.

Separately, Apollo Health Ventures, a Boston and Berlin-based VC, raised $180M last December to invest in anti-aging startups.

Read more at Retro Bio.

Y Combinator’s Cultivated Meat Companies

To meet global food demand, cultivated meat companies will need to build 800 production facilities and dump $27 billion into them by 2030, according to a recent Good Food Institute estimate. Two companies in this year’s Y combinator cohort are contributing to this target; Mooji Meats and Micro Meat.

The former has a “3D printer capable of producing whole cuts of meat using plant protein or cultured meat cells” and is in the midst of a $2.5 million seed raise. The latter company is building “cell tissue scaffolds” that help deliver nutrients to meat cells as they grow in the lab. Micro Meat raised $375k in pre-seed funding and are raising $2M in a current seed round.

Read more at Tech Crunch.

CRISPR Patent Appeal

It already happened. Emmanuelle Charpentier, UC Berkeley and the University of Vienna have appealed the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s recent decision, which found that the Broad Institute was first to invent CRISPR/Cas9 for editing human cells. The case is now in the hands of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Read more at Fierce Biotech.

Briefly Noted

He Jiankui, the CRISPR baby ringleader, was released from a Chinese prison. Convicted in December 2019, he served a relatively scant sentence. MIT Technology Review

There have been massive layoffs across dozens of biotech companies in the last few months, including at Bluebird Bio (which was included in this newsletter last week). Fierce Biotech is tracking them.

Eternal, a company developing a device that prints food on-demand for astronauts (using a ingredient derived from mushrooms), is setting up a lab at the NASA Kennedy Space Center. Businesswire

Registration is open for iGEM, the international competition for synthetic biology students. iGEM

Applications are open for New Science’s one-year fellowship, which offers $100k in project costs and an $80k stipend to “talented young scientists who are working on ambitious ideas in the basic life sciences.” New Science

Synthace, a “life sciences R&D cloud” that automates experiments, is being tested by researchers in a 12-month feasibility project at University College London. Businesswire

A Northwestern University spin-off, called Stemloop, is building paper-based tests, with cell-free biosensors, to detect lead and other common contaminants in water. Forbes

Sacramento-based The Better Meat Co. will launch a foie gras-from-fermentation product later this spring. Food Dive

Mogale Meat, a cellular food-tech company in South Africa, has launched the continent’s first chicken product created from cell cultures. Food Business Africa

Pairwise is launching a consumer-facing company, called Conscious Foods, to deliver gene-edited produce to grocery stores. The Spoon

UK-based Evonetix was granted a patent for "thermally-controlled” DNA synthesis. The company uses slight temperature changes, across a silicon chip, to control the assembly of nucleic acid polymers. Businesswire

Enzymatic DNA synthesis company, DNA Script, signed an agreement with distribution companies throughout the Asia-Pacific. Their goal: Same-day deliveries for custom, synthetic DNA. Businesswire

Evozyne, a protein design company, is partnering with Takeda Biosciences “to research and develop proteins that could be incorporated into next-generation gene therapies for up to four rare disease targets.” PR Newswire

For TCR-T therapies, T cells are engineered to carry immune proteins that help them detect and treat a wider range of cancers than is possible with CAR-T therapies. Kimmtrak, developed by Immunocore in the UK, is one such drug, and it was recently granted market approval in Europe. Labiotech

Money Talk

Boston-based TRIANA Biomedicines launched last week with $110M in funding (from Lightspeed Venture Partners, Pfizer Ventures, Surveyor Capital, Logos Capital). The company is developing “molecular glues” that help to stabilize protein interactions for disease-relevant, but “undruggable,” targets. Businesswire

Leaps by Bayer will invest more than 1.3 billion euros, in the next three years, into cell and gene therapy companies. Bayer

Novartis got a green light from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to build out its 170,000 square foot facility in Durham, North Carolina. The factory will manufacture gene therapies “for current and future clinical trials.” Novartis

Ginkgo Bioworks signed a large, four-year deal with Twist Biosciences to purchase synthetic DNA (a 2017 deal was for about one billion base pairs; this deal is larger). Fierce Biotech

In a second Ginkgo deal, the company announced a partnership with Microba (a microbiome analysis company) “to identify single-strain, live bacteria product candidates against autoimmune diseases.” PR Newswire

Berkeley-based Demetrix uses microbial fermentation to ‘grow’ rare cannabinoids. Now, they’ve partnered with Evonik, the German chemical company, in a supply agreement for beauty and personal care products. PR Newswire

Come ‘n’ Go

Flagship Pioneering, investors in Cellarity, Sana Biotechnology and a slew of synthetic biology companies, appointed Margo Georgiadis, former President / CEO at Ancestry.com, as a CEO-Partner. Flagship Pioneering

Affini-T Therapeutics, the company editing T cells to target oncogenic drivers, raised over $100M last month. Now, they’ve appointed Michael Varney (Chair of R&D at Erasca) and Daniel Faga (recent COO at Mirati Therapeutics) to their board. Businesswire

Houston-based First Bight Ventures is a VC firm that invests exclusively in synthetic biology startups. They appointed two new advisors; Gaurab Chakrabarti, co-founder of Solugen, and Kevin Cocker, co-founder of a regulatory company for the biotech and medical device industries. PR Newswire

The co-founder of Legend Biotech, a company developing a CAR-T cancer therapy called Carvykti, stepped down as CSO. Fierce Biotech

David Sabatini, known primarily for discovering mTOR, resigned from his MIT professorship after an external committee found he violated the university’s sexual harassment policies. Science

Catamaran Bio, a company developing CAR-NK cell therapies for cancer, appointed Frank Lee, CEO of Forma Therapeutics and former senior vice president at Genentech, as chair of its board. Businesswire

Thanks for reading,

— Niko // @NikoMcCarty // niko@codonmag.com