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Synthetic Protein Company Gains $25M in New Funds

E. coli

Escherichia coli, or E. coli, bacteria (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

3 Nov. 2021. A company designing engineered proteins to work better than natural chemistries as treatments for disease is raising $25 million in its first venture round. GRO Biosciences Inc., a five year-old enterprise in Cambridge, Massachusetts is a spin-off business from labs at Harvard Medical School and University of Texas in Austin.

GRO Biosciences seeks to overcome limitations that make natural human proteins difficult or unreliable to use as therapeutics. The company’s technology modifies amino acids, the chemical building blocks of proteins, to overcome these obstacles, including short active lifetimes in the body and interactions with the immune system. GRO Bio uses computational techniques to engineer the genomes of common bacteria, such as E. coli, recoding the genes to express amino acids with non-standard chemistries and displaying the desired properties. GRO stands for genomically recoded organisms.

Company co-founder and CEO Daniel Mandell, then a research fellow at Harvard Medical School, led a team that demonstrated these techniques with an E. coli strain designed to prevent their evolutionary escape from containment mechanisms, producing safer enzymes expressed by the organisms. Mandell and colleagues from the lab of Harvard geneticist and GRO Bio scientific founder George Church published their findings in a Jan. 2015 paper in the journal Nature.

Platforms for two types of amino acids

Another team from the lab of UT-Austin biochemistry professor Andrew Ellington also genetically altered E. coli bacteria to produce longer lasting and more stable proteins. Those researchers showed how modifying E. coli genes to add the element selenium to the common amino acid cysteine, produces proteins in large quantities with more stability and shelf and activity life than proteins with natural cysteine alone. As reported in Science & Enterprise, a paper published in June 2018 in the journal Nature Biotechnology describes the team’s techniques. Ellington is also a scientific founder GRO Bio, and with Church an advisor to the company.

Since GRO Bio started-up in 2016, the company developed platforms to produce non-standard amino acids for two types of therapeutic proteins. One platform, called DuraLogic, assembles amino acids into proteins with longer shelf and activity lives, for more stable disease treatments and requiring fewer doses for patients. The second platform, called ProGly, generates non-standard amino acids, or NSAAs, with the carbohydrate polymer glycan, expressed on an antigen protein’s chemical surface. These amino acids then act as a switch for antigens to generate or inhibit an immune response.

“Using our GRO platform and proprietary biofoundry technologies,” says Mandell in a company statement, “our team has designed, tested, and selected our first families of NSAA chemistries to drive our product pipeline, focused initially on autoimmune and metabolic disorders. Our plan is to simultaneously pursue strategic partnerships to keep core value in the company while advancing our own internally developed programs.”

GRO Biosciences is raising $25 million in its first venture funding round, led by Leaps by Bayer, the global drug maker’s investment arm based in Berlin, and Redmile Group in San Francisco. Taking part in the round are current seed investors Digitalis Ventures and Innovation Endeavors, with other undisclosed participants. Since its founding, the company raised $5.9 million in seed and other funds, according to Crunchbase..

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