By Barry Teater
One of China’s biggest conglomerates is backing a Morrisville startup tackling a perplexing problem facing the health care industry. In November, Locus Biosciences raised $19 million to develop antimicrobial drugs to fight infection. San Francisco-based Artis Ventures led the funding, which also included Abstract Ventures of San Francisco and Tencent Holdings, the Chinese internet-investing giant.
At least 2 million Americans annually are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria or funguses — ironically, often while in the hospital — and about 23,000 die from their infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are fewer effective drugs to combat these infections because the overuse and misuse of antibiotics have made microbes resistant to many treatments.
A possible solution to this growing health menace is emerging in the laboratories of Locus, a small biotech company on the fringe of Research Triangle Park. The company’s 11 employees are developing precise therapies to kill dangerous germs while sparing harmless or beneficial bacteria.
Paul Garofolo is the company’s chairman and chief executive officer. He was chief information officer at Valeant Pharmaceuticals from 2004-08 and held various positions at drugmaker Patheon from 2008-14. The latest funding will support a new drug application to the Food and Drug Administration, human clinical trials in 2019 and a doubling of staff, he says.
Locus was created in 2015 when Garofolo, a visiting professor at N.C. State University’s Poole College of Management, connected with scientists Rodolphe Barrangou and Chase Beisel of N.C. State and biomedical-engineering professors Charles Gersbach and Dave Ousterout of Duke University. The quintet saw commercial potential in a new gene-editing technology called CRISPR-Cas and co-founded Locus to pursue it. (N.C. State is not a shareholder in Locus, but it has a technology license agreement with the company.)
Locus’ technology directs a powerful enzyme, Cas3, to seek and destroy selected bacteria by irreversibly chewing up their DNA, which also prevents the bacteria from evolving further drug resistance.
“Cas3 behaves essentially like a Pac-Man,” Garofolo says, evoking the 1980s video-game creature that devours ghosts. “We use that Pac-Man capability to go after the world’s deadliest pathogens that are part of the antibiotic-resistance threat.”
The company’s top target is the difficult-to-treat Clostridium difficile, the bacterium responsible for one of the most prevalent hospital-acquired infections. Other targets are antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli, a common cause of serious bloodstream, gastrointestinal and urinary-tract infections.
“Everything that we’re going after is really nasty,” Garofolo says.
HENDERSON — Mako Medical Laboratories will create invest $15.4 million and add 153 jobs over five years at a new testing center and warehouse. The new jobs will pay $51,987 annually, nearly 60% higher than Vance County’s average wage. The Raleigh-based diagnostic-testing company employs 169 people in the state.
SMITHFIELD — OPW, a unit of Downers Grove, Ill.-based Dover, will add more than 80 jobs and invest at least $7.8 million at its local plant over the next two years. The company employs 205 people in Johnston County making fueling equipment for convenience-store chains.
DURHAM — Machine-learning company Infinia ML named Robbie Allen chief executive officer. A former Cisco engineer, Allen founded and led Automated Insights, the Durham-based company that was acquired by Vista Equity Partners in 2015. Earlier this year, Infinia raised $10 million from private-equity group Carrick Capital Partners.
DURHAM — Corning will create 428 jobs over three years, including 317 here and 111 at a warehouse in Tarboro, in Edgecombe County. The new jobs will support increased production of the New York-based company’s pharmaceutical glass packaging. Corning will invest $189 million in the Durham site and $86 million in Edgecombe.