Startups

This Company That Grows Brains In Jars Just Raised $25M

What if we told you that there’s a company that grows brains, doses them with research drugs, and then reads their data outputs? Furthermore, what if we told you that this company uses robots to tend this unlikely flock?

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System1 Biosciences isn’t building something out of the opening scenes of The Matrix. It’s a San Francisco-based company that has developed a drug discovery program based on phenotypic screening to find new treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders.

The Deal

This week, System1 announced it raised a $25 million Series A round co-led by CRV and Pfizer Ventures. A number of other investors participated in the deal. The deal brings the company’s total funding to $30 million.

George Zachary of CRV and Margi McLoughlin, Ph.D., from Pfizer, will join the company’s board of directors. Dylan Morris of CRV and Pfizer’s Laszlo Kiss, Ph.D., join on as board observers.

According to the announcement, System1 intends to use this financing “to drive its drug discovery programs for epilepsy, autism, and schizophrenia.”

Co-founder and CEO Sean Escola, M.D., Ph.D., said in a statement that he was “thrilled” about his company’s new investors and “the opportunity we now have to apply our biotechnology platform at the scale needed to identify new drugs for neuropsychiatric disorders.” Prior to System1, Dr. Escola was an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. His co-founder, Saul Kato, Ph.D., was an assistant professor of neurology at University of California, San Francisco.

What The Company Is Building

System1 Biosciences doesn’t grow full brains. It grows so-called “organoids,” which Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute defines as “tiny, self-organized three-dimensional tissue cultures that are derived from stem cells. Such cultures can be crafted to replicate much of the complexity of an organ, or to express selected aspects of it like producing only certain types of cells.”

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In System1’s case, the company uses “stem cell lines derived from patients with brain disease” to grow its mini-brains. According to a profile of the company in the Wall Street Journal, the company “didn’t discover how to create brain organoids, but it has built a novel system around scaling production of them, monitoring their growth, and collecting huge amounts of data on the differences between healthy and diseased samples.”

The company uses robots to tend to its organoids. Automating their production and developing a way to pull data from these living laboratories enables “the collection of a massively scaled, high-content dataset across multiple modes of biological measurement over many months and under many conditions,” the company said.

The company says that analysis of the resulting data streaming off its organoids “yield systems-level characterizations of disease never before achievable.” These characterizations, which the company refers to as “deep phenotypes” can be used to find targets for new treatments for neurological and psychiatric diseases.

The company asserts that “[t]raditional discovery approaches for these disorders have mostly failed patients, their families, and society.”

System1’s phenotypic technology is multimodal, meaning it can identify many separate characteristics. An understanding of these separate characteristics, or phenotypes, and how they interact with one another, can help identify combinations of drugs which are more effective at treating patients with certain phenotypes than any one drug in the combination working alone.

This may all sound like some future science fiction stuff, but these data-intensive, highly-parallel methods are a big part of the future of drug discovery. It just so happens that this one company grows tiny brains to do it.

Illustration: Li-Anne Dias