The high-stakes race to use CRISPR gene editing technology to create medicines has been underway for years now, and human trials are just starting. But the idea of using CRISPR as a tool to detect and diagnose a disease has been gaining traction, too, and the launch of a new startup today called Sherlock Biosciences marks the latest step.
Sherlock has been formed around technologies licensed from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University, dubbed “SHERLOCK” and “INSPECTR,” respectively, that use CRISPR-based systems to detect foreign invaders within the body. The startup is co-founded by Feng Zhang, who helped form two other gene editing companies, Editas Medicine (NASDAQ: EDIT) and Beam Therapeutics; synthetic biology pioneer Jim Collins of MIT and Harvard’s Wyss Institute; and several other CRISPR, cancer, and infectious disease experts. It is starting out with a $35 million bankroll, which includes a $17.5 million non-dilutive grant, an investment from the Open Philanthropy Project, and support from undisclosed investors.
Rahul Dhanda, a former executive at diagnostics company T2 Biosystems (NASDAQ: TTOO), is Sherlock’s president and CEO.
The news marks yet another front in the multi-year CRISPR battle between the Broad and the University of California, Berkeley, which is home to CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna. The two groups famously wrangled over the origin and ownership of CRISPR gene editing technology, taking their feud to the courts. Both have since been awarded patents. Now, they’ve hatched rival CRISPR diagnostics companies.
In February 2018, scientists from the Broad and UC Berkeley published side-by-side papers in the journal Science describing the use of their respective CRISPR-based diagnostic systems—SHERLOCK, from the Broad, and DETECTR, from the UC Berkeley camp—to detect trace amounts of viruses or tumors in human samples. Mammoth Biosciences spun out of UC Berkeley last April to advance Doudna’s work and raised $23 million a few months later. Now, Sherlock has emerged from the Broad.
When used for therapeutics, CRISPR-based gene editing uses molecular scissors—an enzyme—to cut DNA and disable a gene implicated in a disease. Those scissors are guided to the DNA by a string of engineered RNA code. For diagnostics, the CRISPR machinery uses enzymes to seek out a specific pathogen. The enzymes then snip DNA or RNA from a virus, for example, and the cuts generate a readable signal. The idea is this type of technology could lead to a diagnostic that could quickly detect a disease in a person’s blood, urine or saliva much faster and with less equipment than existing tests.
“Existing molecular diagnostic tools are often limited in their effectiveness because they are costly, labor-intensive, and are not mobile,” said Sherlock co-founder David Walt, a pathology professor at Harvard and a scientific founder of DNA sequencing giant Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN), in a prepared statement. “We believe that Sherlock is poised to overcome those challenges by creating tests that are faster, less expensive, and easier to use than currently available molecular diagnostics.”
Here’s more on the emerging race to use CRISPR as a diagnostic tool. And here’s more on Sherlock from Forbes.