Caribou Biosciences, one of the biotech startups working to advance a much-watched new technology for precise gene editing, announced today it has raised an $11 million Series A round from venture capital firms and Swiss drug giant Novartis.
The money will help Berkeley, CA-based Caribou speed up its efforts to adapt a versatile genome editing technique co-discovered by one of its founders, UC Berkeley professor Jennifer Doudna, for a range of uses, including drug research and development, and industrial technology.
Doudna (pictured above) and her collaborator, Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research in Braunschweig, Germany, and Umeå University in Sweden, figured out how to transform a bacterial defense against viral infection into a tool to edit out abnormal sections of genes, such as those that cause hereditary diseases.
Caribou’s gene editing platform is based on two elements of that bacterial molecular machinery: a guiding mechanism called CRISPR (clustered, regularly interspaced palindromic repeats), and an enzyme called Cas9, or CRISPR-associated protein 9, molecular scissors that cut a segment of DNA. Caribou was founded in 2011 to commercialize the work from Doudna’s lab.
Doudna was one of the investors in Caribou’s Series A round. The other investors include Fidelity Biosciences, Novartis, Mission Bay Capital, 5 Prime Ventures, and an undisclosed strategic partner.
Caribou recently formed a collaboration with Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, MA, to use the startup’s gene editing technology to screen potential new drug targets.
In 2014, Caribou co-founded another gene editing startup, Cambridge-based Intellia Therapeutics, and assigned it exclusive rights to develop and commercialize human gene cell therapies using its CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing platform. In November, Intellia raised a $15 million Series A round from Atlas Venture and the research arm of Novartis. (NYSE: NVS). A few months later, Intellia and Novartis teamed up again, this time on an effort to use Intellia’s gene editing tools with a promising cancer immunotherapy technology called chimeric antigen receptor T-cells, or CAR-T.
Caribou still has rights to use its gene editing system for therapeutic research and development, and to develop anti-microbial products in human health as well as industrial products for agriculture and other fields.
Caribou and Intellia aren’t alone in the pursuit of commercial breakthroughs based on the new gene editing techniques. Doudna was a scientific co-founder of Cambridge-based Editas Medicine, another startup in the race to develop drugs with CRISPR-Cas9 technology, backed by Polaris Partners, Third Rock Ventures, and Flagship Ventures. Rights to Doudna’s foundational discoveries, however, rest with Caribou, and Doudna is no longer involved with Editas.
Doudna’s collaborator Charpentier assigned her portion of the CRISPR-Cas9 rights to CRISPR Therapeutics of Basel, Switzerland. Other scientists, like Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard (an Editas co-founder), have laid claim to intellectual property rights related to the promising novel gene editing technique, which may become entangled in a legal snarl at the U.S. Patent Office.