The Duke-based startup uses novel epigenomic editing techniques to improve understanding of genome structure and function to identify potential new drug targets
Element Genomics, a biotech startup founded by Charles Gersbach, Tim Reddy, Kris Wood and Gregory Crawford, was recently acquired by UCB, a global pharmaceuticals company with a focus on neurology and immunology. Gersbach, the Rooney Family Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke University, and his collaborators founded the company in 2015 after developing novel technology to characterize the non-coding genome, opening up new classes of drug targets for common diseases.
The basis for the Element Genomics platform is the comprehensive mapping of gene function and regulation. This includes technology developed at Duke using the CRISPR/Cas9 platform, a genetic editing technique that allows researchers to make changes to targeted sequences of DNA. Typically, researchers will use the platform to make specific, permanent edits to a genome by cutting the DNA. But rather than permanently change the DNA sequence, Element Genomics’ technology alters how a portion of the DNA is regulated, allowing them to study how genes and pathways of interest interact by turning the targeted sections of the genome on or off.
“We were using these tools to characterize the non-coding genome, which includes the 98 percent of the human genome. We don’t really understand how most of it works, but it is clear that it plays a large role in drug response and disease susceptibility,” said Gersbach. “We were developing tools for perturbing that portion of the genome, and that opened up a whole new class of drug targets for common diseases. We quickly realized the technology was something that could go beyond our academic lab.”
In August of 2015, Gersbach and his colleagues approached Barry Myers in the Duke-Coulter Translational Partnership, which had supported Gersbach’s research at Duke, for help to form a start-up. The team received further support from John Oxaal, who was then working as the first Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Duke BME. Oxaal, an alumnus of Duke Engineering and a serial entrepreneur himself, worked with the team to finalize licenses and find space in an incubator in Durham, and currently serves as CEO of the company.