Locus Bio Raises $19M for CRISPR-Cas3 Antimicrobial “Smart Bombs”

Xconomy Raleigh-Durham — 

A growing number of companies are using CRISPR technology to try and develop more precise treatments for a wide range of diseases, and Locus Biosciences is joining the mix, embracing the platform to tackle drug-resistant bacteria. Now the startup has $19 million to test its “precision antimicrobial” tech in humans.

ARTIS Ventures, a San Francisco-based venture capital firm, led the Series A financing round. Locus, based in Research Triangle Park, NC, says the cash should fund the company through its first clinical trial.

Much of the attention surrounding CRISPR focuses on Cas9, the enzyme that acts like a pair of molecular scissors, precisely cutting DNA at specific locations on the genome. Although Locus uses CRISPR, the startup has turned to another enzyme, Cas3, that works differently than the precise gene editing and repair approach of Cas9.

Unlike Cas9, Cas3 offers no repair mechanism, Locus says. The company designs and creates RNAs that direct Cas3 to target bacterial DNA for destruction—the startup calls its technology CRISPR-based “smart bombs.” Speaking on a North Carolina State University alumni entrepreneurs panel last winter, Locus CEO and co-founder Paul Garofolo described Cas3 as a “Pac-Man,” gobbling up DNA and damaging the bacteria beyond repair.

Besides offering an approach that differentiates Locus from companies using Cas9, Locus says its focus on Cas3 offers another advantage: steering it clear of patent litigation surrounding CRISPR-Cas9.

“We have one of the most robust patent portfolios in the CRISPR space, completely independent of the Cas9 legal disputes,” Garofolo said during the panel discussion.

Locus’s approach is based on research from North Carolina State and Duke universities. Founded in 2015, the company has made antibiotic-resistant bacteria its focus. Locus says its precision antimicrobials could target pathogens including Clostridium difficile, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Enterobacteriaceae. The company has not yet said what its first bacterial target will be.

Besides ARTIS, other investors in the funding round included Tencent Holdings, Abstract Ventures, and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

Public domain image of Clostridium difficile by Janice Carr of the CDC.