Transforming healthcare through the next generation of molecular diagnostics
CEO, president and co-founder: Rahul Dhanda
Based: Cambridge, Massachusetts
The scoop: Sherlock Biosciences is “borrowing from biology” to surmount hurdles that limit today’s diagnostics, including cost and the amount of labor, equipment and infrastructure they need to return results. Armed with CRISPR and synthetic biology-based platforms out of Harvard University and the Broad Institute, it aims to make cheaper diagnostic tests that deliver results quickly and can be used in any setting, including hospital emergency rooms, in the field, or at home.
“Diagnostics have not seen any massive leap in technology for quite a while. The last thing would probably be PCR [polymerase chain reaction],” says CEO Rahul Dhanda, one of Sherlock’s founders. The company is keeping its areas of focus under wraps but has said its technology has potential applications in oncology, infectious diseases and agriculture.
What makes Sherlock fierce: Sherlock’s focus is improving diagnostics, but it believes those efforts will go beyond testing and transform the way people seek and receive healthcare.
“We are focused not just on diagnostics, but also on how we can transform healthcare through diagnostics that do things that they were never capable of before,” says Dhanda. “In short, the opportunity for us, by being a multiplatform organization, is to not only revolutionize healthcare but also business models around how diagnostics are delivered to individuals.”
For example, Sherlock could develop an at-home test for influenza, which may seem like a “nice convenience” but would also reduce the burden on healthcare providers, Dhanda says. With such a test, patients could figure out if they have the flu and then consult online with a doctor on the appropriate treatment.
“We can rely on what is a much more advanced supply chain, which includes the sharing economy, with Uber and so on. We could receive some interventions and therapy at home and we’ve never left the house,” he says. “We can also reduce the number of patients who are exposing their disease to others; we can change the epidemiology of disease.”
Its namesake technology, SHERLOCK, short for Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing, is a Cas13a-based CRISPR system that targets RNA rather than DNA. Instead of making therapeutic edits to the genome, it checks a sample for certain nucleic acid sequences, such as one that appears in the Zika virus. It needs little equipment to maintain its temperature and so may be suited to emergency rooms and urgent care settings.
Meanwhile, Sherlock’s synthetic biology platform, INSPECTR, or Internal Splint-Pairing Expression Cassette Translation Reaction, can be programmed to identify targets from a single nucleotide. It can be performed at room temperature on a paper-based testing system, which could come in handy in military, consumer health or low-resource fields.
This two-pronged approach gives Sherlock “multiple shots on goal,” allowing the company to match its tools to their best uses—or even combine the two. This strategy is how Sherlock will make big strides in an area that has not seen a “massive leap” in decades.
Sherlock has yet to announce the disease areas it wants to work in but said at launch that oncology and infectious diseases were potential targets. One of those infectious diseases is the novel coronavirus.
“This is an obligation we feel, to be a rapid response group for emerging threats like that,” Dhanda says. “The other unique thing about these platforms is they’re incredibly rapid to develop and deploy.”
Teaming up with other companies with big commercialization teams could accelerate that timeline.
“We would deploy [diagnostic tests] far faster if we had the complementary infrastructure those large organizations bring. We’ve talked about licensing and partnering with companies that can bring to the table that kind of scale and infrastructure,” he said.
In the meantime, it’s joined forces with Cepheid, the molecular diagnostics company that Danaher snapped up for $4 billion in 2016. Their research deal centers on the broad buckets of oncology and infectious disease with a first focus on the novel coronavirus.
Over the next six months, Sherlock is plugging away at its pipeline to bring its tests closer to the clinic. Dhanda expects to work with government agencies and nongovernmental organizations to build up its ability to respond quickly to outbreaks.
“I’ll note that infrastructure is as valuable to a commercial partner as it is to a government,” Dhanda says. Though it might be created to bring a test for, say, the novel coronavirus to doctors and patients quickly, other tests, such as companion diagnostics for cancer drugs, would benefit from it too.
“The infrastructure we are building is really twofold,” he adds.