All star team of synthetic biologists raise $53 million for cancer therapy startup Senti

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Dividing cancer cell. Coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of a colorectal cancer cell undergoing mitosis (nuclear division) and splitting into two daughter cells (left and right). Here, it is in late telophase, the final stage before cell division (cytokinesis) and the two daughter cells are still connect by a cytoplasmic bridge (horizontal, centre). Bacteria (rod-shaped) can also be seen on the cells. Magnification: x2000 when printed at 10 centimetres wide.

A who’s-who from the world of synthetic biological research have come together to launch Senti Biosciences with $53 million in funding from a slew of venture capital investors.

Led by Tim Lu, a longtime researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the founding fathers of synthetic biology, Senti’s aim is nothing less than developing therapies that are tailored to an individual’s unique biology — and their first target is cancer.

Here’s how Lu described a potential cancer treatment using Senti’s technology to me. “We take a cell derived from humans that we can insert our genetic circuits into… we insert the DNA and encoding and deliver those cells via an IV infusion. We have engineered the cells to locate where the tumors are… What we’ve been doing is engineering those cells to selectively trigger an immune response against the tumor.”

The adaptive therapies that Senti hopes to develop will act in a localized area only, be able to sense and respond to the conditions that diseases create within a body, are able to be controlled (programmed) at the cellular level and respond to conditions in a variety of ways.

it’s the culmination of decades of research at institutions like MIT, the Wyss Institute at Harvard, MD Anderson, Boston University, ETH Zurich, and other institutions.

“Senti has built a world-class interdisciplinary team, uniquely capable of tackling the challenge of creating adaptive therapies,” said Ed Mathers, partner at NEA and member of Senti’s board of directors, in a statement. “We are excited to support them in their extraordinary vision to change how difficult diseases are treated.”

New Enterprise Associates actually led Senti’s Series A round with participation from 8VC, Amgen Ventures, Pear Ventures, Lux Capital, Menlo Ventures, Allen & Company, Nest.Bio, Omega Funds, Goodman Capital, and LifeForce Capital.

The company was founded three years ago, when Lu first had the idea to pull together the research from the world’s top labs into a single company that would work on developing therapies for cancer — and look to partner with other companies to create treatments for other diseases.

For Lu, the promise of the CRISPR gene editing technology — at least for now — lies in its ability to create these kinds of programmable cells to target disease.

Lu isn’t alone in his belief that CRISPR’s editing technology holds the key to unlocking cures for some of the deadliest diseases facing humanity.

“The potential applications of CRISPR are enormous. It’s the closest we’ve ever come to a cure for cancer. We’ve already been able to cure HIV infection in animal models, and even in human cell cultures, by removing the viral genes that insert themselves into our DNA,” the Australian geneticist and researcher Fahad Ali, wrote in a recent editorial for The Sydney Morning Herald.

A former computer scientist, Lu explains the CRISPR technology as a pretty direct corollary to writing code for software. Thinking of human biological functions as a code, means that many diseases are just coding errors that can be overwritten with the introduction of new “software”.

That’s essentially what Senti is developing. The use of gene-editing technologies allows companies like Senti to write new programmable cells that perform specific functions if certain biological conditions exist.

Senti’s experts have been culled from the best in the field, according to Lu. Who spent the three years that Senti was operating in stealth mode flying around the world to meet with the top researchers in areas like immune cell engineering, engineered cell therapies, mammalian synthetic circuit engineering, and therapeutic synthetic biology, and immune cell engineering.