MORRISVILLE – Morrisville-based Locus Biosciences, a developer of precision antibacterial therapies, has signed an exclusive collaboration and license agreement with Janssen Pharmaceuticals, one of the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson. The deal could be worth up to $818 million.

The companies will team up to develop, manufacture and commercialize a product targeting a key bacterial pathogen for the potential treatment of infections of the respiratory tract and other organ systems.

Locus Biosciences

Under the terms of the agreement, Locus will receive $20 million in initial payments and is eligible to receive up to $798 million in potential future development and commercial milestone payments and royalties on any product sales.

Locus is developing what is known as Type I CRISPR-Cas3-enhanced bacteriophage (“crPhage”) therapeutics.

A CRISPR primer

CRISPR is a relatively new DNA-targeting technology that uses enzymes to cut, edit and replace DNA at specific places in the genome.  It was adapted from the natural immune systems of bacteria, which use CRISPR to chew up invading pathogens such as bacteriophages – viruses that specifically attack bacteria.

Locus Biosciences graphic about CRISPR

Various CRISPR systems have been repurposed for precise genome engineering with big commercial potential for biomedical, agricultural and research applications.

While most CRISPR technology uses an enzyme known as Cas9, Locus uses a Cas3 enzyme. Cas3’s ability to irreversibly destroy DNA differentiates it from the more widely known Cas9 enzyme used for gene editing and repair.

Locus focus fights bacteria selectively

Locus uses engineered bacteriophages and CRISPR-Cas3 to precisely and selectively remove unwanted bacteria from the body while sparing the many other species of beneficial bacteria.

Locus Biosciences lands $20M upfront, could earn nearly $800M in licensing deal

If proven safe and effective in clinical trials, Locus’ products could provide a turning point in the global battle against antibiotic-resistant infections and other microbiome dysbiosis-related conditions, the company said. Dysbiosis is a microbial imbalance or impairment on or inside the body.

“Our collaboration with Janssen on the development of products to treat deadly infections and potentially other microbiome dysbiosis-associated conditions reflects the importance of the crPhage platform and its potential to revolutionize the treatment of disease and extend human life,” said Paul Garofolo, chief executive officer of Locus.

“Our platform is uniquely positioned to selectively eradicate pathogenic bacteria of choice while preserving an otherwise healthy microbiome in patients,” he said. “This collaboration with Janssen will enable us to further develop products on the platform to help patients in need around the world.”

An estimated 10 million people worldwide will die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections by 2050 unless solutions are found, according to a 2016 report commissioned by the British government.

NCBiotech grants, loans helped company survive, thrive

Locus, a 2015 spinout of N.C. State University, was started with the help of a $75,000 Company Inception Loan from the Biotechnology Center. The Biotech Center followed that with a $250,000 Small Business Research Loan a year later.

Three of the four scientific founders of Locus have also received Biotech Center grants totaling more than $300,000.

Locus went on to raise $19 million in Series A venture capital in 2017. The round was led by Artis Ventures of San Francisco with additional financing from institutional investors Tencent Holdings, the Chinese internet conglomerate, Abstract Ventures of San Francisco and others.

(C) N.C. Biotechnology Center