Innovative cancer therapies taking shape in West Berkeley

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Caribou Biosciences is using next-generation genome-editing technologies to advance the development of cell therapies for patients.

A research scientist works on one of Caribou Biosciences’ state-of-the-art machines. Credit: Caribou Biosciences

BERKELEYSIDE – Once a grad student working out of a laboratory at UC Berkeley’s Stanley Hall, today Dr. Rachel Haurwitz is co-founder, CEO, and president of Caribou Biosciences, a West Berkeley-based biopharmaceutical company that is one of the first to turn CRISPR genome-editing technologies into human medicines. Their initial public offering last summer, which raised nearly $350 million, is considered one of the largest ever in the genome-editing field.

Developing cell therapies that she calls “critical now and for the future of cancer therapy,” Haurwitz’s company uses an innovative approach to genome-editing that is more precise than first-generation CRISPR technology. 

Rachel Haurwitz, PhD, is president and CEO of Caribou Biosciences. Credit: Caribou Biosciences

As remarkable as that technology is, Haurwitz explained, it occasionally edits the wrong site on a gene, causing cells to malfunction. Caribou, founded in 2011, has developed editing guides that use both DNA and RNA to edit the genome more precisely, limiting any harmful effects. “We call this genome-editing platform chRDNAs, pronounced ‘chardonnays,’” Haurwitz said. “In addition to better targeting, chRDNAs can be used across a broad range of cell types.”

What sets Caribou’s approach apart from other therapies that use a patient’s own cells to create personalized treatments is that Caribou instead uses healthy donor cells to develop treatments that are suitable for many patients and can be manufactured, shipped and stored more efficiently and cost-effectively. 

Caribou is currently developing a pipeline of these cell therapies to treat patients with blood cancers and solid tumors. Its first Phase 1 clinical trial kicked off in 2021, targeting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, one of the United States’ most common cancers.

Growing the herd in Berkeley

Haurwitz and Caribou got their start in the UC Berkeley laboratory of Dr. Jennifer Doudna, who won the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Emmanuelle Charpentier for developing CRISPR. Doudna and Haurwitz, along with other co-founders and CRISPR pioneers Martin Jinek and James Berger, launched Caribou through the university’s QB3 Startup in a Box program. The company’s work today is focused on precision next-generation chRDNA technology.

The Caribou name, Haurwitz explained, blends two scientific terms fundamental to the firm’s purpose: CAS (CRISPR-associated proteins) and ribonucleic acid (RNA). With a little imagination, CAS-ribo became Caribou. The caribou antlers in their logo represent snippets of RNA.

The name also fits in another way: the degree of responsibility given to female members of the herd. “Not only do female caribou have antlers, they keep their antlers longer than the males,” said Haurwitz. “As a result, they often take on greater responsibilities in the herd.” At her company, half of the executive leadership team are women, nearly three-quarters of their board of directors are, and half the firm’s scientific advisory board are, too.

Caribou employees at the company’s West Berkeley headquarters. Credit: Caribou Biosciences

Throughout its growth, Caribou continues to emphasize diversity, equity and inclusion in its hiring and policies. “We strive for excellence and recognize that building teams with the right mix of talent and expertise, with diverse experience and backgrounds, is critical for success in a collaborative endeavor,” Haurwitz said. “We keep this front and foremost as we grow the Caribou herd.”

Caribou’s values are grounded in Berkeley as well. Haurwitz serves as an advisor to the Berkeley Startup Cluster, led by the City of Berkeley Office of Economic Development. This partnership brings together the public, private and academic sectors to make Berkeley a more vibrant, accessible and equitable space for startups to launch and grow. “If others can benefit from our example, our struggles and successes,” Haurwitz said, “we’re happy to share.”

And in the reverse, Haurwitz believes that Caribou’s accomplishments to date and in the future, “would not have been possible without the world-class talent here in Berkeley.” As Caribou continues to grow, she said, she hopes to continue tapping into “the incredibly strong base of talent found here.”

Caribou currently employs about 100 people in its 60,000-square foot research and development facility in West Berkeley — a building that once housed a Twinkie bakery. “We suspect that the walls are insulated with Twinkies,” Haurwitz joked, “although we have no scientific proof of that.”

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