Jennifer Doudna's new CRISPR company will tackle disease detection

Mammoth Biosciences unveiled itself Thursday, with technology licensed from the lab of Jennifer Doudna, Ph.D., and a mission to develop a CRISPR-based platform that can detect any biomarker containing DNA or RNA. The endgame is a point-of-care diagnostic tool that can test for multiple conditions at once for use in hospitals and at home. 

While most people think of CRISPR in the context of gene editing, Mammoth CEO Trevor Martin thinks of it as a search engine. 

"It's like typing in a search string that tells [the search engine] what you want it to find," he said. "In CRISPR, you type a guide RNA into a protein to tell it what to find." It then looks for whatever sequence is complementary to the guide RNA. Instead of using the technology to target and then delete or replace a faulty sequence, Mammoth is using it to check whether a particular sequence—one that only appears in the parasite that causes malaria, for example—is present in a sample. Once it binds to the target, it doesn't just cut that sequence; it has a collateral effect, cutting any nucleic acids that happen to be nearby.  

"We leverage that by adding reporter molecules that, when they are cut, release a color," Martin said. A color change indicates the presence of the bacteria, virus, or genetic mutation in question. The components of the test can take many forms, such as on a strip of paper or in a well. 

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Mammoth hasn't zeroed in on any one disease area: "We're looking broadly. The key thing is how programmable the system is—we can switch from one application to another," Martin said. It could be useful to detect infectious diseases, for example, or to differentiate quickly between bacterial and viral infections so patients can receive the appropriate treatment. 

The company's investors include Mayfield, NFX, 8VC, AME Cloud, Wireframe, Kairos, and Boom Capital, but Martin declined to disclose the amount of capital Mammoth has raised. 

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Aside from Martin and Doudna, Mammoth's co-founders include Chief Technology Officer Ashley Tehranchi, Ph.D., and UC Berkeley Ph.D. students Janice Chen and Lucas Harrington, who will head up scientific research. The company currently has seven employees and is looking to "grow rapidly" this year. 

Its first priority is building out the CRISPR platform, which includes creating some tests in-house. It's also looking for partners—a liquid biopsy company that has identified biomarkers but doesn't have the right technology to commercialize it, Martin said. 

And the applications don't stop at healthcare: “Mammoth’s technology exemplifies some of the most urgent, impactful, and untapped potential in the CRISPR space,” said Doudna, chair of Mammoth’s scientific advisory board, in a statement. “With use cases ranging from individuals to larger healthcare systems, agriculture, mining, and beyond, Mammoth is taking CRISPR out of the lab to create something that is transformative for the general public.”