The Danish start-up SNIPRBiome used CRISPR technology to kill seemingly untreatable bacterial infections with surgical precision. And that is just the first use case of the comprehensive, patent-fueled platform they’re building.
It’s a rare thing for a new biotech to hit the front page or go viral. But that was the case a few years back when the molecular scissors ‘CRISPR’ were used to edit rabbit genes to make them glow in the dark.
While most of the initial hype surrounding the gene-editing technology was spent discussing the possibilities and ethics of editing human beings, a small Danish start-up used their time patenting the use of the technology in bacteria instead.
According to Dr. Christian Grøndahl, co-founder and CEO of the start-up SNIPRBiome: “CRISPR is a gene-editing tool that allows you to cut all kinds of genes – mine, yours, and in wheat or zebrafish. But we have decided to use it exclusively to cut the genes in bacteria.”
Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the same in mice, men, and bacteria, and that is precisely what the company is editing with the technology. Specifically, SNIPRBiome is using the technology to combat the multi-resistant superbugs currently killing approximately 50.000 people in the West each year.
Grøndahl explains: “We want to use the technology to get rid of life-threatening and untreatable bacterial infections – superbugs and multi-resistant bacteria which can’t be treated using regular antibiotics. So we’re looking to find the replacement for antibiotics for the 1 out of 100 incidences where antibiotics don’t work.”
We are aiming at curing incurable, multi-resistant diseases and helping patients with inflammatory bowel disease by altering the bacteria in their stomachs
This is just the first use-case for their patented technology. With 60 patents pending all over the world and a hefty investment of 350M DKK, the company is giving us a glimpse into what we can expect from this hyped technology in the near future.
A sniper rather than a hunter
Most people associate bacteria with something bad, but that explanation is much too simple for Grøndahl. Our bodies contain more bacteria than human cells, and they are crucial for us to survive – albeit we didn’t really appreciate this until 10-15 years ago.
There is a cost to cure a bacterial infection, as the medicine typically attacks a broad collection of bacteria – including the goods one. And that’s where the CRISPR medicine developed by SNIPRBiome sets itself apart: It only targets the bacteria it is designed to attack.
In Grøndahl’s words: “Using broad antibiotics is like using a harvester. It’s a chemical substance that influences all of the bacteria in your body. We want to introduce a drug that is just as accurate as the doctor’s scalpel, so we only target one bacteria instead of aiming at them all.”
The targeted approach does, however, include some additional steps for the drug to work. First of all, it requires a precise diagnosis to know exactly what type of bacteria should be targeted. Following this, the medicine must be programmed to identify the bacteria (literally programmed). For this, SNIPRBiome uses a supercomputer to calculate the features in the DNA of the target bacteria, as well as the bacterium the drugs should avoid. This way, the drug “knows” which bacteria to attack and kill by cutting its DNA.
From hype to big business
The ambitious biotech start-up was founded just four years ago by two scientists and a patent lawyer. This arrangement allows for both the development and legal protection of the new drug, paving the way to its patent as the first CRISPR-drug in the United States. As Grøndahl describes it: “We spent the first 2,5 years in stealth mode, while we used our own savings to get research results and apply for patents.”
Since then, the company has moved from Cambridge to Copenhagen, secured a 1200 square meter combined office and lab space, raised 350M DKK, and hired 25 researchers (a number they predict will grow to 35-40 by next year).
Though research and patents remain at the core of building the company’s platform, they also have the first two drugs on the way. Grøndahl shares:
“We currently have two research projects we hope will turn into drug candidates within the next year or two. We are aiming at curing incurable, multi-resistant diseases and helping patients with inflammatory bowel disease by altering the bacteria in their stomachs. But we also have new drug types planned for the long term, including a drug to alter the immune system.”
The CRISPR paradigm shift
As the CEO of SNIPRBiome, Grøndahl has been developing drugs for the past 25 years in both pharma and biotech. And he has huge confidence in, the CRISPR technology, and how it is about to fundamentally alter the nature of medicine: “Our business model is based on a brand new approach to making drugs. CRISPR-based drugs aren’t in the pipeline in any of the big pharma-companies right now.”
With 60 patents pending worldwide, their patent position is unusually strong for such a young company. Paired with Denmark’s biggest Series A-investment in the country’s history, they have managed to hire some of the best talent in the ecosystem, and are well on their way to building a solid platform for their new drug type.
With a platform that includes proprietary technology that is well-protected, the company has some very valuable product candidates in the pipeline that can be commercialised. The question becomes: What happens if they succeed in this huge endeavour?
According to Grøndahl: “It will result in a paradigm shift. Some of the big pharma-companies saw CRISPR and microbiomes as overhyped until 6-12 months ago. Now, they have acknowledged that they will need their own people who know these technologies. In reality, the technology is able to kill any given bacteria – we just need to know its genetic code.”