A room in the shadow of Boston’s infamous Fenway Park Stadium is illuminated by a giant, dynamically changing fluorescent globe.
Here’s a video of the cell, nature’s infinite nanofactory, churning out millions of molecules every second.
On the screen in front of me, I see a biological circuit reformatted by software, reminiscent of a Red Sox home run base loop. The basic building blocks of life are laid out in stages, predicting the performance of cellular components as if you were modeling a rocket ship.
“All cells are capable of computation. Perceiving environmental signals, processing information, turning genes on and off,” My host, Alec Nielsen, says he’s CEO and co-founder of Asimov, a company that builds tools for designing living systems.
“I believe that the ability to engineer this evolutionary gift will be the most significant and impactful technology humans have ever developed.”
This is a vision shared by investors and over 25 customers, including the top 10 pharmaceutical and biotech companies. That’s why Asimov this week raised $200 million worth of new funding to expand his drug discovery toolkit.
Funding includes $175 million Series B led by Canada Pension Plan Investments (CPP Investments) with participation from Fidelity Investments, KDT, Casdin Capital, Pillar and Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) doing.
Drug discovery bottleneck
Asimov is a spin-out of Chris Voigt’s lab at MIT, co-founded by Nielsen and Voigt, Raja Srinivas, and Doug Densmore from Boston University.
Explaining what inspired him to join Voigt’s lab as a PhD student, Nielsen said: “How can we get this field closer to the engineering field, without brute force trial and error?”
Accelerating the discovery of cell-derived therapeutics is an important philosophy.
Nielsen quotes Scott Gottlieb, former Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “For regular drugs, 80% of his complexity is in clinical trials. With cell and gene therapy, it’s the other way around. His 80% of complexity is in manufacturing,” he said. I’m here.
The manufacturing process is a major bottleneck, especially when using mammalian cells. Even after a lengthy discovery process reveals new therapeutics, it is difficult to generate antibodies or RNA in sufficient quantity and purity.
“Cures that used to be science fiction are now reaching patients.”
Nielsen says. “But the technology to design and manufacture these medicines has not caught up. A trial-and-error approach does not scale.”
Better design tools for biology
Nielsen draws an eloquent analogy between genetic engineering today and computer science in the 1970s. Next, an image of an Intel engineer hand-carving a stencil of a semiconductor circuit. He now has a supercomputer packed with 10 million transistors.
So Asimov is applying engineering principles to bring biology to life. They also have an excellent toolkit that combines gene-edited mammalian cell lines with a computer-aided design platform they call kernels.
It’s a clever name for its biological origins through corn, but it’s also a term for the layer between a computer’s hardware and operating system.
A kernel starts with a database of known biological parts. Elements of the DNA code. These parts can then be combined into circuits, just as you would in an electronic circuit. The software predicts how they will work together to produce therapeutic proteins such as antibodies.
“This is in some ways the ultimate goal of computational synthetic biology,” says Nielsen. “Being able to predict genetic systems on a computer”
Improving drug development
Asimov not only provides customers with specialized cell lines that can be customized with these biological moieties, but also provides access to the software and instructions on how to use it.
Let’s say you’re trying to improve antibody production. Maybe make more of it or remove impurities. Kernels can be used to fine-tune genetic circuits and experimentally test optimal combinations.
Asimov is currently focused on two major commercial applications. One uses CRISPR-engineered Chinese hamster cells and their accompanying genetic templates to improve the production of proteins such as antibodies. It is famous for being developed in response.
“In the future, we plan to expand to other domains,” says Nielsen. “But now we want to do mammalian synthetic biology therapeutics and be the best. It’s a bed, it’s a beachhead market.”
It’s an exciting prospect. As your toolkit grows, so do the possibilities.
“Our database now contains thousands of gene segments,” says Nielsen. “But one day we will reach billions. We hope this will become a truly comprehensive repository of every gene function needed for every biotech application. ”
thank you very much peter bickerton For additional research and reporting on this article. I am the founder of his SynBioBeta and operating partner of his DCVC that invested in Asimov. SynBioBeta Conference When weekly digest.