A Flagship Pioneering startup emerged from stealth mode on Tuesday, following in the footsteps of sister companies Moderna and Laronde by focusing on a type of RNA to develop new medicines.
Founded in 2018, Alltrna (pronounced All-terna) aims to understand a molecule known as transfer RNA to try to treat a broad range of genetic diseases.
Transfer RNA carries out a final step in the process of making proteins. It is often at this step where mistakes, or mutations, in genetic code turn into incomplete molecules. Alltrna wants to engineer transfer RNA, dubbed “tRNA,” so that it can read errors in genetic code and fix them before they end up causing diseases.
" I realized quickly [in 2017] that if we were able to program these tRNAs as medicines, we’d be able to control every aspect of translation,” said Theonie Anastassiadis, a principal at Flagship Pioneering and Alltrna’s cofounder and chief innovation officer.
For three years, Anastassiadis and a small team at Flagship have been building tools powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning to better understand tRNA, with the hopes of making Alltrna a platform company. The Cambridge-based venture investment firm is known for creating these types of startups, which have goals of making scientific technologies “programmable,” so that they can be applied to treat many diseases.
Lovisa Afzelius, an origination partner at Flagship Pioneering and chief executive of Alltrna, says the company could potentially use a single tRNA drug to treat thousands of diseases that stem from the same genetic mutation.
Anastassiadis said tRNA has been historically understudied, so the company’s formative years involved building the proprietary tools necessary to “speak the language of tRNA biology.”
“That was a huge unlock for us,” she said. “It allows us to now be able to probe the biology and [it] really [is] the foundation for any question that we might ask.”
Flagship said on Tuesday that it has invested $50 million in Alltrna, which has about 30 employees. So far, Alltrna is just disclosing that it has the capability to understand and engineer tRNA in the lab . Details on clinical timelines, diseases it plans to treat, and specific hiring goals remain under wraps.