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Biotech startup Rubius raises $120m to develop red blood cell technology

Red blood cells. Annie Cavanagh/Wellcome Images

Rubius Therapeutics Inc. of Cambridge is set to announce Wednesday that it has raised $120 million — one of the largest biotech financing rounds this year — to develop a novel drug-making technology.

The funding, led by life sciences venture capital firm Flagship Pioneering in Cambridge, will let Rubius step up work on its drug discovery technique, which genetically engineers red blood cells so they can produce drugs for a range of diseases. The company had been operating in what is known as stealth mode, with plans under wraps.

Rubius has already made and tested about 200 red cells, each producing different proteins, and plans to use them as catalysts for medicines to fight cancers, enzyme deficiencies, autoimmune and infectious diseases, and rare blood disorders such as hemophilia.


“We’re developing a new class of medicines that no one else is working on,” Rubius president Torben Straight Nissen, a biopharma industry veteran, said. “The ultimate goal is to bring as many red cell therapies to patients as possible.”

Rubius, which raised an initial $25 million in early 2015, started in Flagship VentureLabs, a Kendall Square incubator that has spawned dozens of companies. It now employs about 40 cell therapy scientists and researchers in larger space at 325 Vassar St., near Memorial Drive, and could grow to nearly 100 employees in the coming year, Nissen said.

Nissen said the company could be moving to even bigger quarters as it advances its experimental therapies into clinical trials. “We’re looking to expand our footprint over the next six to 12 months, and we’re looking to stay in Cambridge or Boston,” he said.

The company’s scientific approach is part of a broader Flagship strategy to focus not on individual drug candidates but on “platform” technologies capable of generating many medicines, said Flagship chief executive Noubar Afeyan, Rubius cofounder.


“We’re looking for first-of-its-kind platforms,” Afeyan said. “The risk of doing anything new in our business is so high that there’s more reward if you’re developing new approaches that can create multiple drugs. Once you can show that one or two [drug candidates] can become drugs, then 10 or 20 of them can.”

After the Rubius scientists genetically engineer the red cells, they can be grown in bioreactors, the stainless steel tanks used to produce biotech drugs. “We are basically using a manufacturing process where the actual art of making the protein is done by the cells,” Afeyan said.

The company’s financing round includes co-investors, including large publicly traded institutional firms that weren’t identified by Flagship.

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