The science of gene editing is exploding, propelled by transformational new technology and the diminishing cost of sequencing genomes. But there are limitations. Right now, it’s difficult for scientists to make more than a few genetic changes to a cell at once. In the future, however, scientists may need to be able to make hundreds of changes — and they will need a tool capable of doing so.
In much the same way faster computers can run more complex software, a University of Minnesota startup is developing a better gene editing “processor” to make more complex genome engineering techniques a reality. B-MoGen Biotechnologies Inc., launched in February by the Venture Center at the U’s Office for Technology Commercialization, develops and markets advanced gene editing products and services for academia and industry. B-MoGen is led by CEO Jeff Liter and U Medical School researchers Branden Moriarity, Ph.D., and David Largaespada, Ph.D.
B-MoGen’s tools are platform technologies, meaning they can be broadly applied across a wide variety of genetics-related research, from cancer and metabolic diseases to agriculture and livestock. The company focuses on lower cost, faster and safer methods for precisely delivering genes to targeted cells and altering cell’s existing genes.
“We anticipate these technologies could help researchers develop better cell-based therapies,” Largaespada said. “For example, it could make it easier to take immune cells from patients and insert genes that make them into efficient cancer killers.”
B-MoGen recently received a major seed investment that will help support its efforts to validate preliminary results for its new technologies, pursue patents to protect these inventions and scale up to meet growing customer demand. Most of this investment came from Bio-Techne Corp., a global manufacturer of clinical diagnostic tools, which received access to B-MoGen’s gene editing technology as part of the agreement.
The University provided a partial match of $350,000 to the seed funding through its Discovery Capital Investment Program, which supports early-stage companies commercializing University technology to help curb the time it takes to bring promising innovations to market.
Precise gene delivery and gene modification
Among B-MoGen’s strengths is the ability to delivery genes to a target cell through the “Sleeping Beauty” DNA-based system, a technology developed by Perry Hackett, Ph.D., with the U’s College of Biological Sciences and Masonic Cancer Center. Unlike other gene editing technologies, Sleeping Beauty functions without the use of a virus, which makes it less expensive to use and carries fewer safety concerns.
The technology was previously involved in a landmark $100 million exclusive licensing deal with biotech company Intrexon Corp. and pharmaceutical company Ziopharm Oncology. While many academic institutions across the globe have used Sleeping Beauty, no company prior to B-MoGen has sold the technology for research use.
In addition to delivering genes to targeted cells, B-MoGen also provides tools and services to alter existing genes for both basic and applied science. The company has licensed several patent-pending technologies from the U for this purpose, including one that will help researchers identify and isolate cells with specific qualities.
Growing an industry in Minnesota
B-MoGen is the latest in a line of University gene-editing startups, which includes companies like Calyxt and Discovery Genomics, that are helping to build Minnesota’s reputation in the expanding field. These startups have proven a natural fit in a state where the agriculture and medical industries — two of the fields that genome technologies have the highest potential for advancing — are central parts of the economy.
“There’s a shared vision among these companies and the researchers who helped found them,” Largaespada said. “The interest was here, and now we’re starting to see the potential. We are excited that our advances in gene editing can help Minnesota become a center for innovative genome engineering that will draw talent and investment going forward.”
See the B-MoGen website for more information.