eGenesis gains $38M to use CRISPR to help tame pig organs for transplants

The startup is hoping to nearly double its staffers this year and build on the early promise of gene editing for transplants.

Upstart eGenesis got off a healthy $38 million Series A round today as it looks to use cutting-edge science to “solve the shortage of organs for donation” by using pigs and CRISPR.

The funding, led by Biomatics Capital and ARCH Venture Partners, will help the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotech to develop its genome-editing tech to make xenotransplantation (using organs from other animals for human use) “a routine and lifesaving medical procedure.”

Using organs from other animals for human transplantation has proven highly complex: The biotech’s exec teams tells me that the best animals to use are pigs, given that they are of a similar size and physiology to humans, but key risks include immunological incompatibility and viral transmission (PERV), “which is why we have focused on these areas in our early research.”

Back in 2015, U.S. researchers used the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR to cut back the potentially harmful virus genes that have long hampered the successful use of pig organs.

The CRISPR-Cas9 tool, which works as a type of molecular scissors that can selectively trim away unwanted parts of the genome, only started human testing in China late last year and has yet to begin U.S. trials, but it has seen much hype around its potential.

The study, which showed that the pig genome can be drastically edited to remove native pig viruses from pig cells, was led by eGenesis’ co-founder George Church, Ph.D., also a Harvard Medical School geneticist. It has yet to be shown to be safe in humans, however.

The science is all still very early stage, something the biotech acknowledges, with its main focus on testing the PERV infectivity in genome-engineered pig cells/tissue, as well as addressing immunological issues.

“Once we address these issues, we can move on to additional preclinical studies,” the team, which is currently made up of eight staffers, tells me. This should nearly double to 15 by the end of the year, with a focus on growing its R&D ops.

There is no full-time CEO as yet, though the hunt is on for one, but industry vet Daniel Lynch, who has had stints at VC Third Rock and Bristol-Myers Squibb and served as CEO of ImClone, has also joined eGenesis as executive chairman.

“I am truly delighted to join the eGenesis team; the work the company is doing is ground-breaking and has the potential to make a significant difference in the lives of so many people waiting for organ transplants,” said Lynch.

“I am confident that eGenesis will change the course of gene editing and transplant medicine and I’m proud to be working with the team that can make it happen.”

What they are focusing on is a major issue: There are more than 790,000 annual deaths in the U.S. alone due to chronic organ failure, the biotech says, while in China, 3 million patients need organs, but only a few thousand donations are made each year.

“A safe and effective xenoorgan has the potential to save millions of patients worldwide,” the company tells me.

Luhan Yang, Ph.D., chief scientific officer and co-founder with Church, added: “While some challenges remain, our founding team confidently aspires to create a world where patients don’t have to die waiting for an organ transplant.

“With this significant investment, we expect to leverage our powerful genome editing platform to create a pathway toward developing and delivering a safe and effective xenotransplantation solution for patients in need. We hope to see xenotransplantation recognized as a viable resource in the medical community as soon as possible."