Manifold Bio, a new startup founded by one of Boston’s most prolific biotech entrepreneurs, has raised $40 million to develop a technology that could make testing cancer drugs more efficient. The company is designing a system for “barcoding” protein therapies — giving them a unique label so that dozens or hundreds of them can be tested at the same time to see which are best at targeting tumors.
The startup was originally founded in 2019 by George Church, a professor at Harvard Medical School, and two of his former graduate students, Gleb Kuznetsov and Pierce Ogden, who are now chief executive and chief scientific officer of the company.
Church has founded more than 20 biotech companies, including the CRISPR gene editing firm Editas Medicine. His startups are often based on cutting-edge genetic technologies. For instance, eGenesis, founded in 2015, is creating gene-edited pigs so that their organs can be transplanted in humans. And Colossal Biosciences, founded last year, is trying to resurrect the woolly mammoth.
Manifold’s protein barcoding technology may seem tame by contrast, but if it works, it could lead to safer and more effective cancer drugs.
One of the problems that drug developers face is selecting a handful of their many drug designs to test in animals, since testing hundreds or thousands of molecules one at a time in mice or monkeys is unrealistic. “Financially, it’s expensive. Ethically, it’s intractable,” Kuznetsov said.
Some biotech firms are relying on artificial intelligence to predict which drugs are most likely to succeed. “But they still have to go through the same gauntlet” of testing them in animals, and then people, he said.
Kuznetsov set out to develop a method for testing dozens, and maybe hundreds, of potential protein therapies in an animal at the same time. The company is focused on protein-based therapies, such as antibodies, which can seek out tumors and recruit the immune system to destroy them. Manifold attaches a molecular barcode to each protein, allowing it to track and quantify which proteins get into a tumor.
Manifold has built a technology that converts that protein barcode into something that can be easily read by DNA sequencers, Kuznetsov said, but wouldn’t disclose how the company does it. Although there are no scientific publications describing the technology, Kuznetsov said there will be one coming soon.
Manifold has grown to 15 people since it raised $5.4 million in seed funding in 2020. The company is now based in the Pagliuca Harvard Life Lab in Allston. The new $40 million series A financing will help the startup hire more scientists, move to a larger lab space, refine its protein barcoding technology, and begin making cancer drugs. The firm did not disclose a timeline for when it expects to start clinical trials.