A medical diagnostics startup that wants to use CRISPR technology to detect diseases raised $23 million in venture funding

Mammoth BiosciencesThe science team behind Mammoth Biosciences
  • Mammoth Biosciences co-founders Trevor Martin, Janice Chen, and Lucas Harrington are spotlighted in the healthcare category of Forbes’ 30 under 30 list of 2019.
  • Mammoth Biosciences announced a $US23 million funding round in July, setting the company up to try and make a dent in the $US45 billion global disease detection market.
  • The startup uses CRISPR-based technology to detect the presence of diseases like HPV and malaria in DNA from blood or urine samples.
  • The technology is easily transportable and doesn’t require expensive machines to run tests.

Mammoth Biosciences‘ motto is simple: to make up-to-date diagnostics simple, accessible and affordable.

“If you think about what we’re offering it’s kind of like a pregnancy test,” said Trevor Martin, co-founder and CEO of Mammoth Biosciences. But instead of tracking hormones that indicates whether a person is pregnant or not, it tracks the presence of diseases like HPV or malaria.

In July, Mammoth announced that they have raised $US23M, led by top Silicon Valley firm Mayfield Partners as well as venture firms NFX and 8VC. Mammoth is trying to make a mark in the $US45 billion global disease detection market, dominated by heavyweights like Roche, Abbott, Siemens and Johnson & Johnson

Martin came up with the idea for the company just over a year ago with Stanford University classmate Ashley Tehranchi. They then connected with PhD students Janice Chen, Lucas Harrington and biochemistry professor Jennifer Doudna at UC Berkeley and calibrated the use of a novel gene-editing tool called CRISPR for disease diagnostics.

In November, Forbes spotlighted co-founders Trevor Martin (age 29), Janice Chen (27), and Lucas Harrington (27) in the Healthcare category of its 30 under 30 list.

CRISPR is a component of bacteria immune systems that when paired with a Cas-protein, can identify and chop up the DNAs and RNAs of harmful invading viruses. Scientists have recently used the CRISPR-Cas complex as a tool to edit the genes of yeast and mice.

Doudna, Chen and Harrington found earlier this year that CRISPR in conjunction with Cas12 and Cas 13 proteins can be applied to diagnostics. They were able to use these complexes to accurately detect the presence of HPV in patient samples.

Martin says that the team at Mammoth is exploring the use for CRISPR as the search engine for biology. The CRISPR-Cas complexes are fitted with a guide-RNA, which tells them what specific sequence to look for in the DNA or RNA sample. Martin compares this to using the ‘Ctrl+F’ function in computers to find and pinpoint keywords or phrases on a webpage.

Martin said that these guide-RNAs can be programmed to find disease-specific RNA or DNA sequences. Then the proteins will bind to all of the matching sequences in the sample and cut them out. Once they make a cut, a reporter molecule attached to the CRISPR-Cas molecule will emit a colour. The colour change can be read out from fluorescence or colour-metrics, and the presence of colour will indicate that the sample tested positive for a disease.

And all of this happens without the presence of heavy duty machinery typically used in diagnostics, like a PCR machine. Plus, the technique is sample agnostic, according to Martin, so it can be used to test blood, urine or saliva.

Since the CRISPR-Cas protein complexes are stable, they can be easily handled and transported, making them accessible to a wide range of patients. They can even come on a piece of paper, and all that’s left to do is add a drop of blood onto the paper, and get the results read through a phone camera.

“There’s huge implications here for global health and the public, because there’s lots of barriers to access these molecular techniques,” said Martin. By eliminating the need for clunky and expensive PCR machines and UV readers, Mammoth aims to democratize diagnostics for use outside of medical-grade labs.

Mammoth’s platform is still in development. This funding will allow the team to develop infrastructure for the CRISPR platform and carry out specific disease detection tests for not only healthcare applications, but across agriculture, forensic, and oil industries. It will also support the product through clinical testing.

Team at Mammoth biosciencesMammoth BiosciencesThe team behind Mammoth Biosciences

Mammoth also welcomed infectious disease expert Charles Chui and protein engineering expert Dave Savage to its growing Scientific Advisory Board, chaired by Jennifer Doudna.

One area that Mammoth is looking into is disease biomarkers, and companies that research them or make them. “We’re very excited to actually work with partners that have this technology to benefit the developing world, not only for existing diseases, but also emerging diseases,” said Martin.

This story was originally published on July 31 and subsequently updated.

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