LifeArc helps create new MRC spin-out company

Our technology transfer team played a crucial role in the formation of Constructive Bio, a new Medical Research Council (MRC) spin-out company that aims to reprogramme microbes to enable new materials to be produced – such as drugs and biodegradable plastics.

As the technology transfer partner to the MRC – part of United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) – LifeArc supports MRC scientists to make the most of their innovative research. Since the early 2000s, LifeArc has supported Prof Jason Chin’s group at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB) in Cambridge to help realise the full potential of their ground-breaking synthetic biology research.

As well as helping the MRC to secure intellectual property (IP) rights and build a robust patent portfolio for Prof Chin’s discoveries, we recently helped to form a spin-out company around the work. The spin-out plans to develop and use a suite of technologies that can reprogramme the genetic code of living organisms, with the potential to generate new classes of drugs and biomaterials.

In August 2022 that spin-out company – Constructive Bio – launched with $15 million seed investment and an exclusive licence from the MRC to exploit its patents on these technologies.

Ground-breaking research

Prof Chin’s group have spent over a decade pioneering synthetic biology techniques to re-engineer biology. In 2019, they achieved a significant breakthrough: they created the first E.coli strain with an entirely re-engineered and compressed genome. Last year, the team showed that their reprogrammed cells could assemble polymers from building blocks that are not found in nature.

Rewriting the genetic code of biological systems has huge potential to help tackle major global challenges. As E. coli is already widely used to produce a variety of useful biomaterials, including drugs and biofuels, this landmark discovery opens a wealth of potential industrial applications. This could include developing new medicines or creating biomaterials that could offer a more environmentally friendly alternative to plastics.

Technology development

LifeArc’s technology transfer team has played a crucial role in putting together an IP package that would help to attract investors to take this research forward. This is part of our commitment to supporting MRC researchers to advance their discoveries, to benefit society and the economy.

The LifeArc team assessed whether the Chin technologies were patentable and whether granted patents would encourage external investment. A key patent application in the IP portfolio LifeArc helped build over the years covers the re-engineered E. coli strain – called Syn61 – and equivalent organisms.

In 2020, LifeArc also helped the researchers to secure a grant from the MRC Development Gap Fund (DGF) to further develop the technology. The new funding enabled the team to carry out additional molecular engineering of Syn61, which led the team to create a Syn61 that was more resistant to infection with a wide variety of bacterial viruses (called bacteriophages), which is a useful property for biomanufacturing.

The data helped demonstrate the potential of this technology – and bolstered the IP package to attract external investment.

Re-engineering biology

Discussions began to form a spin-out company to scale and commercialise these technologies. The LifeArc team advised the MRC on the spin-out business plan and financial terms and negotiated the IP Licence and corporate documents needed to put the legal framework underpinning the company formation in place, on the MRC’s behalf.

Constructive Bio was set up after a seed funding round led by Ahren Innovation Capital, with participation from Amadeus Capital Partners, OMX Ventures and General Inception.

The company will develop two platform technologies; large-scale genome assembly to build entirely synthetic bacterial genomes from scratch, and whole genome reprogramming to engineer non-natural products for commercial applications.

Potential applications include novel therapeutics and antibiotics, enhanced agriculture, manufacturing and materials, and polymers that can be designed to be biodegradable. And because the reprogrammed cells are resistant to bacterial viruses, they could help boost yields of medicinal products such as insulin that are routinely manufactured in E.coli bioreactors, but which are currently susceptible to phage contamination.

Prof Chin said: “Over the past 20 years, we have created a cellular factory that we can reliably and predictably programme to create new polymers. The range of applications for this technology is vast. Using our approach we have already been able to programme cells to make new molecules (including from an important class of drugs) and to programme cells to make completely synthetic polymers containing the chemical linkages found in biodegradable plastics.

“Now is the right time to commercialise these technologies. I am pleased that we have attracted significant support and seed funding to establish Constructive Bio and capture this opportunity. By taking inspiration from nature and reimagining what life can become, we have the opportunity to build the sustainable industries of the future.”

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