UK biotech startup Bit Bio has received 36.9M in Series A funding to boost the manufacturing efficiency of human cells for use in cell therapy and drug discovery.

The impressive deal brings Bit Bios total funding to 44.4M since it was spun off from the University of Cambridge in 2016. Its the second-largest Series A round raised by a European biotech startup so far this year, just after a 55M round raised by the Dutch neurology company Prilenia Therapeutics earlier this month.

Richard Klausner, an individual investor who previously founded US companies Lyell Immunopharma, Juno, and Grail, led the round. Other contributors included the Chicago-based ARCH Venture Partners; the San Francisco healthcare investment firm Foresite Capital; and the German early-stage investor Blueyard Capital.

Human cell lines are essential for the development of drugs and cell therapies. But specialized human cells such as neurons and muscle cells are difficult to source from tissue samples in bulk. One way around this problem is to source more easily obtainable types of human cells from tissue samples, reprogram them into stem cells, and then transform them into the desired cell type. However, existing methods tend to use viral vectors to engineer the stem cells, an approach that produces a low yield of the desired cell type.

Today, the limitations of traditional stem cell biology have become obvious. The protocols for deriving cells using classical methods too often lack consistency and scalability, Bit Bio founder and CEO, Mark Kotter, told me.

Bit Bios approach is to screen large cell biology datasets for cocktails of proteins called transcription factors that are needed to turn stem cells into the desired cell type. The company then genetically engineers the stem cells so that they switch on this cocktail when given the antibiotic doxycycline. This way, the stem cells can be transformed more precisely and efficiently than with viral vectors.

If one considers the transcription factor combinations that determine a cellular identity as a program, then [our technology] is the enter button to the operating system of life that enables faithful execution of any genetic program, said Kotter.

So far, the team has successfully reprogrammed human stem cells into a range of specialized cells such as neurons and muscle cells. If developed at a commercial scale, the technology could reduce the limits on human cell manufacture that is currently holding back the production of cell therapies and drug discovery tools.

Bio Bit will use the latest Series A funding to take its technology to the industrial scale. Once this is established, the company expects to apply its technology to the development of cell therapies.

Another Cambridge-based biotech company working to optimize the production of human cells is Mogrify, which turns cells from adult tissue samples into other mature cells, except without the step of turning them into stem cells first. This could make the process even cheaper and more scalable than technology using stem cell stages.

Manuela Callari is a freelance science and medical writer from Sydney, Australia. She has a Ph.D. in Medical Science, a Bachelors, and a Masters degree in Material Science. She used to wear a lab coat, now she writes about science, technology, environmental science, health, and medicine.

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