J&J-backed Locus closes $35M financing to push CRISPR-based antibacterial drug into phase 2/3

Locus Biosciences—a clinical-stage biotech developing a new class of CRISPR-based antibacterial drugs—just closed a $35 million financing round with backing from Johnson & Johnson.

The $35 million included a series B equity financing and conversion of an earlier convertible note. Previous investors Artis Ventures and Tencent Holdings returned for the round, along with new investors Viking Global Investors and J&J.

The recent financing will support the advancement of lead candidate LBP-EC01, a CRISPR-enhanced bacteriophage targeting E. coli bacteria that causes urinary tract infections, into a phase 2/3 trial. The company expects the trial to begin by mid-2022.

Funds will also accelerate Locus’ preclinical programs developing therapies for microbiome-associated diseases as well as expand its discovery platform engine and boost in-house manufacturing capability to support oral solid dose delivery.

The funding from J&J came specifically from the company's VC arm JJDC, Inc., which has supported early-stage innovation across 156 active portfolio companies in pharma, medtech and consumer health sectors as of the end of 2021. It isn’t the first financial vote of support Locus has received from the pharma giant. In 2019—just over a year after Locus’ $19 million series A round—J&J signed on to be its first big pharma partner, handing Locus $20 million upfront and the opportunity to rake in another $798 million in biobucks for CRISPR-Cas3 drugs targeting two bacterial pathogens.

While most CRISPR companies look to CRISPR-Cas9 to treat human diseases, Locus uses a different pathway—CRISPR-Cas3. In 2017, CEO Paul Garofolo likened Locus’ technology to Pac-Man, with the CRISPR drugs chewing up the target bacteria’s DNA and causing cell death while leaving other bacteria in the microbiome unscathed.

Ultimately, Locus hopes its efforts engineering bacteriophages—naturally occurring viruses that target bacteria—will address the growing threat of drug-resistant bacteria. In 2019, almost 5 million deaths were tied to antimicrobial resistance (AMR), according to an analysis published in The Lancet.

Locus is currently working to develop products that target four leading pathogens tied to AMR-related death. Its precision CRISPR-enhanced bacteriophage (crPhage) products aim to combat deadly infections, while engineered bacteriophage therapies that use bacteria resident in specific locations in the body will allow for the delivery of therapeutics. The Research Triangle Park, North Carolina-based company is also pursuing therapeutic areas beyond infectious disease as it expands its precision platform.

“Locus’ novel scientific approach has the potential to fundamentally change the way bacterial diseases are treated. We are realizing this potential through a robust product pipeline, over $1 billion in signed partnerships and a vertically integrated, commercial-scale cGMP manufacturing facility,” said Garofolo in a May 18 news release.