2018 Synthetic Biology Grant Program winners announced

gBlocks Gene Fragments enable efficient antigen screening in vaccine development

In 2018, two synthetic biology companies received IDT Synthetic Biology Startup Grants to further their vaccine development for cancer and infections. Learn more about the HelixNano Technologies and Tiba Biotech projects in this article.

One of our passions is helping young scientists and start-up companies stimulate their research toward real-world problems. The IDT Synthetic Biology Grant Program began in 2017 to help newly formed companies make an impact on environmental, human health, or humanitarian causes. In fields where the price of reagents can prove to be cost-prohibitive, winners receive IDT product credit worth up to 100,000 bp of DNA. In the words of Adam Clore, Technical Director of Synthetic Biology at IDT, “This program allows young companies to take ideas to the next level, which is why we are pleased to announce this year’s winner, HelixNano Technologies of Boston, Massachusetts, a synthetic biology firm in pursuit of neoantigen cancer vaccines. Runner-up, Tiba Biotech, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, also caught our attention as they are working to identify an affordable vaccine against Schistosomiasis, a disease of the developing world caused by parasitic flatworms.” Here, we further explain how these two remarkable startup companies are using the IDT Synthetic Biology Grant to expand their research.

First place winner HelixNano is applying a novel approach to neoantigen cancer vaccines

Founder and CEO of HelixNano, Hannu Rajaniemi, had not started his career as a biologist. Like many scientists, he was inspired by events affecting his family. Rajaniemi learned that less than 10% of current neoantigen vaccines developed from patient biopsies were able to drive T cell activity. This low success rate was the motivation for him to devise a novel approach to create efficacious immunotherapies that could be used as cancer vaccines. His aim is to develop libraries of precision neoantigens that more precisely stimulate the immune system through optimization of the scaffold (a synthetic major histocompatibility complex and a T-cell activating effector domain) that is fused to the neoantigen.

The IDT grant came at an ideal time as it allowed the company to explore a more significant design space and remove a bottleneck in their pipeline. Use of IDT gBlocks Gene Fragments enables them to build the library of immune co-activator domains for screening in primary cells. They plan to publish their results and make their scaffold designs accessible via non-exclusive licensing to further empower other scientists.

Runner up Tiba Biotech is on the verge of creating affordable vaccines

A Boston-based, pre-clinical biotechnology startup, Tiba Biotech is on a humanitarian mission to create cost-efficient synthetic RNA vaccines for neglected tropical diseases (e.g., Schistosomiasis). A proof of concept vaccine using their novel nucleic acid delivery system has already been tested in animals. However, the creation of a powerful and safe vaccine for Schistosomiasis will require further tests of individual antigens and groups of antigens. The IDT grant will allow the RNA-based vaccine company to validate appropriate antigens for their vaccine.

The IDT Synthetic Biology Grant

To learn more about the 2018 grant and winners, visit the Synthetic Biology Grant Program web page. You can meet Dr Rajaniemi and hear more about the HelixNano story in this short video:

Published Feb 6, 2019