It seems that two U.S.-based CRISPR research groups—one at U.C Berkeley and the other based at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard—are destined to go head to head well into the future. Yesterday, an all-star cast of researchers and biotech veterans including CRISPR pioneer Feng Zhang, launched Sherlock Biosciences, a diagnostics company that will leverage synthetic biology and intellectual property related to the CRISPR patents held by the Broad and Harvard University’s Wyss Institute.
The company has secured initial funding of $35 million, which includes a non-dilutive grant of $17.5 million from the Open Philanthropy Project and other undisclosed investors. According to a press release announcing the launch, the company will “create a new generation of molecular diagnostics that can rapidly deliver accurate and inexpensive results for a vast range of needs in virtually any setting.”
Based in Cambridge, MA, Sherlock’s top executive is co-founder Rahul Dhanda, president and CEO. Dhanda most recently served as senior VP of corporate development and marketing at diagnostics comapny T2 Biosystems. “Our founders have created some of the most important breakthroughs in modern science through advances in the field of Engineering Biology, the practice of designing and building biological systems into tools that can enhance human health,” Dhanda said in a press release. “We are building Sherlock to transform these breakthroughs into a new and powerful generation of molecular diagnostics that will enable users to make more effective decisions in both clinical and non-clinical settings worldwide – including hospitals, industrial settings, low-resource settings and at home.”
Sherlock comes into the market roughly a year after U.C. Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna and partners launched Mammoth Biosciences, a company that also plans to use CRISPR technology licensed from Doudna’s lab to develop a point-of-care test enabling fast, simultaneous detection of multiple conditions, in real time, both in the hospital and at home, through a single credit card-sized strip form factor. The company subsequenty announced it raised $23 million dollars to fund initial development of the test.
With the debut of Sherlock, it seems the rivalry between U.C Berkeley and the Broad—both of which have been locked for years in legal wranglings over CRISPR-Cas9 patent rights—has moved onto the next frontier: diagnostics. In February 2018, Doudna and Zhang simultaneously published research in the journal Science detailing their respectives uses of the CRISPR Cas12 enzyme as a detection tool with diagnositc applications.
Sherlock takes its name from one of its two core technologies—Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing (SHERLOCK). The technology, which has been described in four separate publications in Science, is able to detect genetic “fingerprints” across multiple organisms or sample types.
The second technology being developed is dubbed INSPECTR (INternal Splint-Pairing Expression Cassette Translation Reaction), a molecular diagnostic platform using synthetic-biology developed in the Wyss Institute lab of company co-founder James J. Collins, Ph.D. The company says the technology can “distinguish targets based on a single nucleotide without an instrument, at room temperature.”
The value of the two technologies, the company adds, is that neither requires complex instruments to provide a result, which could make testing available for disease detection both at home and in the field. Potential applications include in oncology, infection identification and food safety.
In addition to Zhang, Dhanda, and Collins the six other founders of Sherlock include:
- Omar Abudayyeh, Ph.D., CRISPR innovator—McGovern Institute Fellow, MIT;
- Todd Golub, M.D., world leader in cancer genomics—Founding core member, chief scientific officer and cancer program director of the Broad Institute; investigator at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School; investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute;
- Jonathan Gootenberg, Ph.D., CRISPR innovator—McGovern Institute Fellow, MIT;
- Deborah Hung, M.D., Ph.D., molecular biology and infectious disease expert; physician-scientist at the Broad Institute, the Department of Molecular Biology at the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School; co-director of the Infectious Disease and Microbiome Program at the Broad Institute; attending physician, Brigham and Women’s Hospital;
- Pardis Sabeti, M.D., Ph.D., infectious disease expert and computational genomics leader—Professor, Center for Systems Biology and Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University and the Department of Immunology and Infectious Disease at the Harvard School of Public Health; institute member of the Broad Institute; investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; and
- David Walt, Ph.D., recognized diagnostics expert—Sherlock Biosciences director; Illumina scientific founder; Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard Medical School; professor of pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor.
“We founded Sherlock Biosciences to improve health worldwide through the development of disruptive molecular diagnostics,” said Walt, in a prepared statement. “Existing molecular diagnostic tools are often limited in their effectiveness because they are costly, labor-intensive, and are not mobile. We believe that Sherlock is poised to overcome those challenges by creating tests that are faster, less expensive and easier to use than currently available molecular diagnostics.”