Flagship launches startup to transform red blood cells into medicine

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A new life sciences startup launched by Flagship Ventures in Cambridge hopes to turn our own red blood cells into potent new medications, capable of treating everything from immune system disorders to cancer.

Rubius Therapeutics, also of Cambridge, will use stem cells collected from a patient’s blood to create new red blood cells. But these cells will be genetically modified by a virus to carry proteins that could repair a host of maladies.

“We’re basically making medicinal blood cells,” said Rubius chief executive Avak Kahvejian. Flagship Ventures has invested $25 million in the new company.

The company’s first target is phenylketonuria, a rare disease caused by the body’s inability to break down a common amino acid. The material builds up in the body and can cause serious damage to the brain and nervous system. Newborns are tested for the condition, which is found in one out of every 13,000 births in the United States. The only treatment is a restrictive diet that avoids foods containing the amino acid.

But Kahvejian said his engineered blood cells can insert a protein that breaks down the amino acid, allowing phenylketonuria patients to eat whatever they like. And since red blood cells generally live about four months, a patient would only need to inject the modified cells three times a year. The method has been successfully tested in a laboratory and on animals. Rubius hopes to begin human testing late next year.

 

 

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at h_bray@globe.com.
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