Business & Tech

Startup eGenesis pushes toward goal: transplanting pig organs into humans

eGenesis photo

“The vision of the company is to create a world where there is no wait for organ transplantation,” says eGenesis chief scientific officer Luhan Yang.

Another Cambridge startup is using the hot gene-editing tool Crispr-Cas9 — this time to modify pig organs so they could one day be transplanted into humans to cure diseases.

EGenesis Inc., spun out of technology developed in the labs of Harvard Medical School scientist George Church, is formally launching Thursday with a $38 million initial funding round from an investment consortium led by Biomatics Capital and Arch Venture Partners.

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The company has operated in stealth mode in Kendall Square for two years with a skeleton crew of eight researchers skilled in genome editing and organ transplantation. It has hired biotech veteran Daniel Lynch, former chief executive of ImClone Systems Inc., as executive chairman and interim chief executive while it searches for a permanent leader.

Chief scientific officer Luhan Yang said eGenesis’s goal is to make xenotransplantation — the process of grafting organs and tissues to humans from other species — safe and routine. Yang, 30, is a Chinese native who came to Boston eight years ago to earn a Ph.D in Church’s lab at Harvard.

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More than 118,000 people in the United States are in need of an organ transplant. Many die because human organs aren’t available in time.

“The vision of the company is to create a world where there is no wait for organ transplantation,” Yang said. “Our team is driven by the fact that there are millions of patients worldwide who are waiting for organs.”

EGenesis joins a growing cluster of local biotechs working with Crispr-Cas9, a technique that lets researchers identify and delete specific sequences in the genome. Unlike other Crispr companies, such as Editas Medicine, Intellia Therapeutics Inc., and Crispr Therapeutics Inc. — which are focused on developing multiple drugs with the tool — eGenesis is concentrating on using the gene-editing tool to enable organ transplants.

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Another startup, Exonics Therapeutics Inc., was launched in South Boston last month to use the gene-editing approach to develop a cure for Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

EGenesis is still in its early stages of research. It plans to move into larger space in Kendall Square in June and to nearly double its staff by the end of the year. Yang said its initial task is to produce “Pig 2.0,” a cloned pig whose organs can be transplanted to humans safely in clinical trials.

While the technology has the potential to be used in transplanting pig organs into the heart, kidney, liver, and pancreas, eGenesis hasn’t yet settled on its first target. “Our focus right now is to prove the concept on a preclinical level,” Yang said.

Pharmaceutical companies have worked for two decades on ways to transplant organs from other species into humans, thus far unsuccessfully. Among the obstacles are human immune systems rejecting foreign tissue and the danger of virus transmission through the transplants. EGenesis and its backers are betting that Crispr-Cas9 can help overcome the challenges of harvesting replacement organs from pigs and other animals for humans.

Church, a company cofounder, was its first investor and is working as a scientific adviser. Other venture firms investing in the initial funding round include Khosla Ventures, Alta Partners, Alexandria Equities, Heritage Provider Network, Berggruen Holdings North America Ltd., Uprising, and Fan Ventures.

Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.
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