Synthetic biology has become something of a biotech buzz-phrase—lots of lab experiments and hype, yet little tangible impact on patients to show for it.
Still, new ideas keep coming out of the startup world to finally harness the potential that comes with genetically engineering biological parts and systems, with the promise of making a huge difference in healthcare. Today, one of those ambitious ideas is taking shape in a Cambridge, MA-based startup called Synlogic, which aims to whip up a line of custom-made bacteria that double as little drug-making factories.
Synlogic today is coming out of stealth mode with a $29.4 million Series A commitment led by founding investor Atlas Venture and New Enterprise Associates. Synlogic isn’t getting all that cash up front, of course—it’ll come in tranches tied to the company’s progress—but the big sum will help the startup embark on a difficult, yet high-reward scientific quest: perfecting a method of manufacturing microbes that are programmed to sense a specific disease or infection, secrete a drug to treat it, and then self-destruct when they’re done.
The idea of packing bacteria into a pill isn’t new, of course. You can buy probiotic supplements at your local GNC, and the evolving scientific understanding of the human microbiome—the trillions of good and bad bugs that live in our bodies—has led to new startups like Seres Health and Vedanta Biosciences, among others.
Synlogic, however, is taking cues from both microbiome research and synthetic biology. The result is a company that Synlogic co-founder and Atlas venture partner Ankit Mahadevia says owns a “next generation” synthetic biology technology: one that can be used to micromanage and “tune”—up or down, very specifically—the activities of genetically-engineered bacteria.
“We’re taking a concept that I think has been long recognized as therapeutically viable, but has been difficult to execute because of the limitation of tools out there,” Mahadevia says. “Now we have a set of tools that really opens up the landscape widely for what we can do.”
Still, it’ll be some time before Synlogic will be able to prove its method can safely and effectively treat human disease. Right now, Mahadevia says the company is sifting through several potential applications for the platform and choosing which ones to pursue. He estimates that the company is “a couple years off” from filing its first papers with the FDA seeking permission to begin a clinical trial.
Synlogic doesn’t have a management team yet—although Mahadevia says those names should be announced “relatively soon”—and is in the process of setting up an office in the Kendall Square area. The company’s board currently consists of Mahadevia, Atlas partner Peter Barrett, and NEA partner Ed Mathers. Dean Falb, formerly of Millennium Pharmaceuticals, is running the company’s scientific operations so far. Alison Silva, a former executive at Cequent Pharmaceuticals (now owned by Marina Biotech), is Synlogic’s chief operating officer.
Mahadevia has been involved in two other Atlas seed projects that have gone on to become full-fledged startups in the past few months: neurology startup Rodin Therapeutics (Mahadevia is the company’s chief business officer), and antibiotics developer Spero Therapeutics (where he’s acting president and chief business officer). As it turns out, Mahadevia’s experience with Spero directly led to the creation of Synlogic.
As Mahadevia was helping to build out Spero, Boston University professor James Collins, one of the pioneers in synthetic biology and understanding how antibiotics work, came aboard as an advisor. During that time, Collins introduced the Atlas team to some other work he and a former postdoc, MIT professor Timothy Lu, were doing.
Collins and Lu, according to Mahadevia, have been developing and getting patents for a platform to genetically engineer microbes that … Next Page »