This CRISPR Startup Co-Founded by a 30-Year-Old Just Nabbed $38 Million for Pig-to-Human Transplants

This CRISPR Startup Co-Founded by a 30-Year-Old Just Nabbed $38 Million for Pig-to-Human Transplants March 16, 2017
By Mark Terry, Breaking News Staff

Cambridge, Mass.-based biotech company eGenesis came out of stealth mode with $38 million in financing. The Series A round was co-led by Biomatics Capital and ARCH Venture Partners, and joined by Khosla Ventures, Alta Partners, Alexandria Equities, Heritage Provider Network and others.

Founded in 2015 by Harvard geneticist George Church and 30-year -old Luhan Yang, the company utilizes CRISPR gene-editing technology to modify pig organs for use in organ transplants.

Using pig organs for human transplants, known as xenotransplantation, has been since the 1960s, but most researchers have abandoned it over the last 15 or 20 years. There were two primary issues. The first is that immune-incompatibility, or organ rejection, was just too entrenched a problem to overcome. And second, there were legitimate concerns about transferring pig viruses to humans. This cross-species viral transmission is behind a number of deadly illnesses, including HIV-AIDS, ebola, swine flu and bird flu.

But Church and Yang believe that by using CRISPR, they can eliminate the antigens that cause the immune-rejection problem, as well as eradicating the viral problem. Yang was honored as Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum for 2017. The WEF recognizes the most distinguished leaders under the age of 40 around the world. In 2014, she also was recognized with the Forbes 30 Under 30 in Science and Healthcare Award, the Richard J. Herrnstein Prize and Young Entrepreneur Initiative Laureate.

Yang, who is the chief science officer and co-founder, told EndPoints News, “We have to see whether the organ is safe, compatible with the human host, before we move into the patient. 2017 is a very important year for us.”

Daniel Lynch, former chief executive officer ImClone, has joined the company as executive chairman. They are currently looking for a chief executive officer. The company, which currently employs about 10 people, is expected to grow to 15 to 20 by the end of the year.

Yang told the Boston Globe, “The vision of the company is to create a world where there is no wait for organ transplantation. Our team is driven by the fact that there are millions of patients worldwide who are waiting for organs.”

eGenesis has been operating out of a laboratory in Kendall Square, Cambridge, and expects to move into a larger facility in June. The company indicates it expects to produce a cloned pig, dubbed Pig 2.0, whose organs can be effectively and safely used in humans for clinical trials.

Potentially the Pig 2.0 organs that could be used are heart, kidney, liver and pancreas. The company hasn’t decided on its first target, currently focused on preclinical development.

The company’s work was published in the journal Science in November 2015. The research first identified 62 porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs). Then, using CRISPR-Cas9, disrupted all copies of the PERV pol gene and described a more than 1,000-fold decrease in PERV transmission to human cells.

Yang also admits that the “immune eradication” aspect of eGenesis’ work is more complicated. The genes they target can be tens of thousands of base pairs in length, and she would not indicate which genes or how many of them the company would need to replace to make the technology work. “We’re pushing the limits of the technology daily,” she told Xconomy. “We have problems to address. This is a work in progress.”

And at least one of those problems is, with large genes involved, how do you make numerous modifications, often multiple modifications, without killing the cells or overly modifying their basic functions?

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