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Biotech startup Tessera takes in $230m to go after ‘gene writing’

Tessera’s cofounder and chief executive, Geoffrey von Maltzahn, is exploring a new field of genetic medicine with a recent $230 million funding round.
Tessera’s cofounder and chief executive, Geoffrey von Maltzahn, is exploring a new field of genetic medicine with a recent $230 million funding round.Ken Richardson

Tessera Therapeutics said Tuesday at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference that it has raised more than $230 million in its second round of funding.

The Cambridge startup was founded by Flagship Pioneering about two years ago, but made its debut in July with an early $50 million investment from the venture firm. The company is advancing a new technology it calls “gene writing,” entering the field of genetic medicine in which other companies are pursuing approaches such as gene editing and gene therapy.

Tessera’s cofounder and chief executive, Geoffrey von Maltzahn, sees an opportunity in exploring gene writing because he thinks it can be more effective, reaching beyond the limitations of other genetic methods. Von Maltzahn is also a general partner at Flagship Pioneering and a cofounder of several other companies.

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“We brought [Tessera] out of stealth [because] the progress we were making was, to us, sensational,” he said in an interview. “We realized we needed to be scaling up the company in a really big way.”

Current genetic medicines in development are based on cutting genes, sometimes turning them off, or altering genes that already exist. Instead, Tessera is aiming to make small insertions or deletions — or in some cases writing entire genes — into the human genome, which could potentially cure and prevent diseases in new ways.

An image showing an example of Tessera's RNA-based gene writing.
An image showing an example of Tessera's RNA-based gene writing.Microverse Studios

“You can think about it more like a typewriter or a word processing technology for writing in nature,” von Maltzahn said, comparing other methods to scissors. “The vast majority of therapeutic opportunity requires you not just to turn a gene off, but to write therapeutics messages into a specific patient.”

To do this, Tessera is working with “mobile genetic elements” that can essentially write their genetic code into new locations. Pursuing this area has several advantages, von Maltzahn said, such as having the ability to re-dose patients with medicines to reach a cure, instead of only being able to treat them once. The medicines could be distributed in the form of a shot and be manufactured at scale, he said.

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The startup has yet to disclose which diseases it is going after, but its method could potentially be used to treat cardiovascular, oncological, neurodegenerative, and infectious diseases.

“You could imagine gene writing into a subset of your cells, a sequence that protects you from ever getting Alzheimer’s or cardiovascular disease,” he said.

While clinical trials are likely years away, von Maltzahn said the recent round is about taking the company to a point where it has a “big portfolio of therapeutics that are ready to transition” there.

“We haven’t announced the specific programs that will be at the front of the pipeline,” he said. “Today it is safe to say we are building technology with the potential to address many dozens of distinct diseases.”

With the new funding, Tessera will grow its 50-person team by about 100 employees this year, set up manufacturing and automation capabilities, and be better positioned to support multiple clinical trials in the future.

“The company is still connected to Flagship for many core functions, and we are building out the executive team so the company’s operations can stand entirely on their own,” von Maltzahn said.

The latest funding round was co-led by Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation, Altitude Life Science Ventures, and SoftBank Vision Fund 2, with participation from Qatar Investment Authority and others.

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“These are relationships driven by trust and enthusiasm,” von Maltzahn said. “This has the chance to be an epic company, and we are going to face tons of twists and turns, but we are trying to build a multidecade, really important company.”


Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8.