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Crispr Diagnostics Company Launches with $35M Funding

Sherlock paper test strips

Sherlock paper test strips (Zhang Lab, Broad Institute)

21 Mar. 2019. Sherlock Biosciences Inc., a new enterprise offering medical diagnostics based on the genome-editing technology Crispr, is starting up with $35 million in seed financing. The company is spun-off from labs at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and the Broad Institute, a genomics research center affiliated with Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Sherlock Biosciences offers what it describes as a low-cost and more efficient process for detecting biological targets, using simple paper-based tests in non-lab settings. The company is licensing from Broad Institute a process known as Sherlock — short for Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing, and the source of the company’s name — described in Science magazine in April 2018. Sherlock uses a Crispr-like technology to identify nucleic acids, the genetic building blocks found in DNA’s genetic code and RNA’s instructions to produce proteins based on DNA codes.

Crispr, short for clustered, regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, makes it possible to edit genomes of organisms harnessing bacterial defense mechanisms that use RNA to identify and monitor precise locations in DNA. With Sherlock, edits take place in RNA rather than DNA and use an enzyme called Cas13. This enzyme seeks out specific genetic sequences in a specimen sample, and if detected in the sample, it binds to and cuts the RNA in nearby locations. Sherlock adds a reporter sequence to the RNA, a specific piece of synthetic RNA, which also gets cut by the Cas13 enzyme, releasing a signal identifying the presence of the original target sequence.

Coupled with Sherlock is a companion technology called Inspectr — short for Internal Splint-Pairing Expression Cassette Translation Reaction — developed by and licensed from the Wyss Institute. Inspectr connects to Sherlock to translate the reporter sequence signals into a bioluminescent visual display that can appear on an everyday substrate like paper and at room temperature. The combination of Sherlock and Inspectr make it possible to construct simple, paper-based tests for detecting and quantifying pathogens or other biological targets almost anywhere, in human specimen samples, food products, hospital surfaces, and industrial processes.

Sherlock Biosciences has 9 scientific founders, researchers in genetics and synthetic biology from Harvard, MIT, and the Broad Institute, including Broad Institute Crispr pioneer Feng Zhang, Harvard Medical School molecular biologist Deborah Hung, and biomedical engineering professor James Collins at the Wyss Institute and MIT. “Engineering biology-based tools have broad potential to transform not just the treatment of disease but also how diseases are diagnosed,” says Collins in a company statement. “Sherlock Biosciences will make a significant difference in the world by bringing the power of synthetic biology and Crispr to diagnostic development.”

“Our team,” adds Hung, “has the expertise and technology to transform diagnostics with a powerful set of engineering biology tools to enable rapid test design and deployment, an essential component of addressing many health care needs, including the growing problem of resistant bacteria.”

The new company launched today with $35 million in seed financing. Half of the amount is a non-ownership grant and investment from the Open Philanthropy Project, with the remainder from other undisclosed investors. “We believe Sherlock Biosciences offers an enormous opportunity to improve human health worldwide by delivering fast, accurate and simple diagnostic testing,” says Heather Youngs, program officer for scientific research at the Open Philanthropy Project. “Development of this technology could both reduce viral pandemic threats and benefit health care more broadly.”

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