David Baker Launches Vilya with $50 Million
And about that Moderna lawsuit...
OK. I get it. Nobody wants to read four dozen synthetic biology papers each week. You’re blasé when it comes to boring aggregators. You want ACTION! EVENTS! MONEY!
Since many of my favorite newsletter writers have weekly or monthly roundups, where they basically just share some links and offer comments on them, I figured — why not emulate success? This is a good excuse for me to spend some time away from research each week, and to instead share some fun news about biotechnology.
Let me know what you think of this new format or send tips on Twitter.
The Big Stuff
Moderna sued Pfizer and BioNTech in Massachusetts and Germany. The lawsuit, of course, is about vaccines. If Moderna wins, they’ll dominate the mRNA vaccine space, and other companies will have to pay them royalties. The specific claim is that Pfizer and BioNTech infringed on three patents filed by Moderna between 2011 and 2016 — one patent that describes “a chemical modification to help avoid undesirable immune responses to mRNA” and a second patent “related to the encoding of the spike protein in a lipid molecule.” But BioNTech says “that they have an issued patent, filed 6 years earlier than Moderna’s, that explicitly includes the 1-methylpseudouridine modification,” according to coverage in Science. Very spicy.
Moderna wants to recoup damages for vaccines sold by the other companies in wealthier countries. Regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome, the lawyers are the obvious winners here: “Analysts at the investment bank SVB Securities wrote in a note to investors on Friday that the history of disputes over intellectual property between similar companies ‘suggests the most likely outcome would be modest royalties paid by both companies, with little net favorable financial impact for anyone but the law firms involved.’”
David Baker is a protein engineering legend. And just last week, he published a paper in Cell that reported new-to-nature macrocycles — chemical structures that form a ring shape, and switch conformation when exposed to different solvents. These computationally-designed macrocycles can even penetrate across cell membranes, thus opening the door for a whole slew of macrocycle-based therapeutics. Now, this macrocycle design technology (spearheaded by two postdocs, Gaurav Bhardwa and Jacob O’Connor) is the basis of a new company, called Vilya, that just launched with $50M in Series A funding. Side note: Vilya is the Ring of Sapphire in The Lord of the Rings, and was originally made by the Elves of Eregion. It was owned, at various times, by both Celebrimbor and Elrond.
OK, I hate the name, but I like the concept. An Israeli company called Mermade Seafoods is growing cultivated sea scallops. And their process for growing them is intriguing: Grow the scallops, collect their poop and other waste (mainly ammonia and CO2), feed that waste to algae, and then use the algae to feed the scallops. It sounds like the human centipede of scallops. And now the name is kind of growing on me.
Geoffrey Cumming made his fortune in oil and gas, for a while, and then in solar power investments. Now, the Australian is seeding the Cumming Global Center for Pandemic Therapeutics, at the University of Melbourne, with $172 million. The goal will be to develop new antiviral therapeutics really fast, for whenever the next pandemic emerges. I’m thinking the center will include a few protein design folks, a couple of people who specialize in virus engineering, and some immunologists. This center seems like a really good real-world test for the Effective Altruism community — how will the center regulate dual-use technologies?
Quick Hits and WTF
In our race to colonize Mars, did you ever think that, upon landing on the Red Planet, we would confront new diseases? Hmm? Yeah, neither did I. But apparently NASA thinks that it’s possible. Even Carl Sagan wrote, in 1973, that there could be pathogens on Mars. To prepare for that unlikely scenario, NASA and the European Space Agency are building a “Sample Receiving Structure” to process Martian rocks brought back to Earth; the makeshift lab will meet BSL-4 criteria.
A company called Dioseve just raised $3M to turn iPS cells into oocytes. Their goal is to solve infertility, but $3M doesn’t seem like nearly enough money. A reporter covered the investment in Tech Crunch, but never linked to the foundational Nature paper that, well, basically made this company possible.
LyGenesis is trying to grow a liver inside of a human volunteer in Boston. The trial will start soon, and the company says the approach — of building new, miniature organs in people — is needed for people who are not otherwise eligible for transplants. The company uses “the patient’s own lymph nodes as bioreactors to grow functioning ectopic organs,” according to their website.
Have you ever thought about carrying around a plastic pouch, filled with engineered enzymes, to eat after meals? Neither have I. But Y Combinator-backed Kiwi Biosciences is selling literally that. The enzymes apparently break down “common gut symptom triggers found in garlic, onion, wheat and other popular foods,” and could speculatively help people with IBD.
Instead of spraying pesticides on plants, a chemical ecologist named Christer Löfstedt took genes from Camelina, a flowering plant that produces powerful pheromones, and transferred them into money-making crops, like corn and soybeans. Pheromones can hold certain bugs at bay, and Löfstedt already planted experimental plots in Nebraska and Sweden back in 2016.
The bodies of dead soldiers are hidden in the reefs off Saipan, and across the Pacific. Remnants of World War II-era fighting, archaeologists and divers are now “collecting plugs of sediment and 6-liter bottles of seawater” to explore “whether they could detect human DNA seeping out of the crash site and into the environment.” Remains could perhaps be identified, decades later, using environmental DNA, and thus speed up underwater forensics investigations.
Chinese engineers at Tsinghua University laid out their plans to build “a 594-foot-tall dam using robots, 3D printing, and artificial intelligence. The researchers claim that no human labor needs to be directly employed in building this massive structure—if the plan moves forward, the dam would produce 5 billion kWh of electricity annually.” The dam would extend an existing structure on the Yellow River, and would be built from 3D-printed concrete.
Neukio Biotherapeutics is a Chinese company making stem cell-derived “off-the-shelf” CAR-NK cell therapies. They just raised $50 million in a series A-1 round, including additional funds from Lilly Asia Ventures.
Planted closed a series B round with about $71M in funding. A ‘meat alternative’ company, they’ll use the money to launch new products, like biostructured chicken breast.
The genome editing market is going to triple in value between 2021 and 2028, from about $5.2 to $17 billion (apparently). Genuinely have no idea how people come up with these numbers, since tools like genome editing seem to have nonlinear impacts that may be difficult to predict in advance.
In future weeks, I’ll probably only send this newsletter to paid subscribers. But I’m still ruminating on that.
Until next time,