MORRISVILE – Locus Biosciences, a Morrisville-based biopharmaceutical company developing a powerful way to combat even drug-resistant bacterial infections with gene-editing, has booked nearly $1 billion in investment deals.
It could be on the way to celebrated “unicorn” $1 billion valuation status – a rarity for startups with a handful to date in North Carolina such as AvidXchange in Charlotte, Epic Games in Cary and hopefuls such as Raleigh software startup Pendo. While funding has totalled some $30 million since launch, Locus is making headlines from the scale of its deals.
Founded in 2018, the company set some records in going from the petite dish to clinical trials, rapidly developing innovative CRISPR-Cas3 enhanced bacteriophage products.
This led to:
- A recent $12.5 partnership with the global non-profit, Combatting Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Biopharmaceutical Accelerator (CARB-X).
- A contract with Johnson & Johnson worth up to $818 million,
- And the recent $144 million dollar partnership with BARDA, a government agency established to aid in securing the U.S. from influenza, pandemics and emerging infectious diseases (EID).
In an interview with WRAL TechWire, Paul Garofolo, CEO of Locus Biosciences, said part of the technology-using viruses that infect bacteria (bacteriophage) to deliver a payload– is not new. The company explains:
Bacteriophage are viruses that specifically attack bacterial cells. They are ubiquitous in the environment and are the most common organisms on the planet, outnumbering bacteria by an estimated 10 to 1. When a phage targets a bacterial cell, it injects its genetic material into the cell that hijacks the cell’s machinery and uses it to create new copies of itself.
The infected bacterium is killed in the process of releasing new phages, which go on to infect additional bacteria. Bacteriophage have been used as antibacterial therapy since shortly after they were discovered in the early 20th century. Bacteriophage therapy has enjoyed renewed interest from the medical community in recent years as antibiotic resistance has emerged as a serious global public health threat.
‘An incredibly powerful technology’
Locus’ approach combines the bacteria-hunting activity of bacteriophages with the DNA targeting activity of CRISPR-Cas3. That means the treatment does not harm good bacteria, as it affects only the target.
The CRISPR gene-editing technology is derived from the way bacteria defend themselves from viral attacks. CRISPR-Cas 9 acts like a scissor that can cut genes at any point. CRISPR-Cas 3 technology, says Garofolo, is more like a Pacman that gobbles up the targeted bacteria.
The company has a pipeline that includes products targeting four of the most common bacterial pathogens. It also has products targeting microbiome-related disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease, pharmaceutical response to immune-oncology therapies, infections associated with immune checkpoint inhibitors and, colorectal cancer. It would eliminate the need for broad-spectrum antibiotics during and after surgery.
“As long as we can find a bacteriophage for the target, we can engineer them to carry the CRISPR Cas 3 payload,’ Garofolo said. “It’s an incredibly powerful technology.”
The original pieces of the Locus tech came from research at North Carolina State University, but most came together at the company,” he added. “The U.S. Federal Drug Administration is amazingly receptive to this.”
The company recently sold convertible notes in a debt raise meant to roll into its next equity round in 2021.
Early on, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center provided crucial support. “They were one of our instrumental first investors ($830,000 in convertible notes). It later made a strategic investment in the firm. “We don’t have enough positive to say about them,” Garofolo said.
Locus, designated an essential business, has continued working with proper precautions during the pandemic.
The 52 person company is hiring and expects to finish the year with about 58 people and expand to about 85 by 2021.