NEW YORK – Chinese life sciences company Qi Biodesign is developing novel genetic engineering tools for applications in agriculture.
In April, the Beijing-based company raised more than RMB 100 million ($14 million) in pre-Series A funding, following a landmark study in Nature Biotechnology that demonstrated the capabilities of its genome editing tool in plants.
Established in 2021, Qi Biodesign was cofounded by Kevin Zhao, who received his Ph.D. from the Broad Institute working with David Liu, and Caixia Gao, a renowned plant genome engineering scientist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
According to Zhao, who now serves as the company's chief technology officer, Qi Biodesign currently has two main business goals: developing new genome editing technologies that can be used in agriculture and beyond and using these techniques to produce plants with desirable traits, such as high yield or climate change resistance.
One of the tools within Qi Biodesign's portfolio is prime editing-mediated recombination of opportune targets (PrimeRoot), a technology that combines prime editing and recombinases and promises to be able to insert large DNA fragments into plant genomes.
For their Nature Biotechnology study, Zhao, Gao, and their colleagues used PrimeRoot to insert DNA pieces up to 11.1 kb in size into plant genomes in a targeted manner. They were also able to introduce a disease resistance gene into rice plants.
"[If] we look at plant traits, it becomes really urgent to [make] larger insertions in plant genomes because a lot of traits that are essential in agriculture are actually reliant on foreign genetic elements," said Zhao. Meanwhile, traditional techniques used to produce genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are typically "random and sporadic," he added, making them "not scalable" since only a few companies have the ability to screen a large number of samples to find the desired trait.
Compared with existing genome editing tools, Zhao said, PrimeRoot has two major innovations. For one, the method employs a so-called enhanced plant prime editor (ePPE), previously developed by Gao's group, that is optimized for plant cells. In addition, the method uses Cre recombinase, which allows researchers to precisely insert a desired expression cassette of a gene into the host genome while eliminating any background sequences from the donor.
"In plant GMOs, regulation around the world is a huge challenge," Zhao noted. "If you're inserting anything else that is not necessary to insert, that means [you have] a lot of explaining to do."
Additionally, Zhao said that unlike genome editing in human cells, researchers performing plant editing also have to figure out ways to alter the epigenetic state of the edited cells, which are totipotent, in order to turn them into a whole plant. "The reason why plant editing is slower than [editing in] humans is because every time we perform editing, we're actually waiting for a whole plant to grow," he said.
Besides PrimeRoot, the company is working on other new editing approaches, details of which it plans to publish in the near future.
In addition to technology development, Qi Biodesign's goal is to use these genome engineering techniques to produce desirable traits in staple crops, such as corn, soybean, and wheat. It is currently focusing on two parallel sets of traits: a combination of herbicide and pest resistance in corn and soybeans, and disease resistance with high yield in wheat.
At this point, the traits in wheat are "fully ready" to be launched, Zhao said, and the company is talking with global seed firms, such as Monsanto and Corteva, to integrate the traits into their seeds.
In terms of IP, Zhao said the company currently has about 70 granted or pending patents, some in China and others global, which pertain to both gene editing tools and plant traits. These patents include IP transferred over from Gao's group at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Because many Chinese genome editing companies working in therapeutics development do not have their own IP, Zhao said Qi Biodesign is also potentially interested in licensing some of its technologies that could be applicable in human cells out to those firms.
Besides Qi Biodesign, Inari Agriculture, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based seed technology company cofounded by Harvard University professor George Church, and Pairwise, a food and agriculture gene editing firm cofounded by Zhao's mentor Liu, are also working on agriculture applications using genome editing tools. While Inari and Pairwise are companies "similar" to Qi Biodesign, Zhao said, these firms are "not necessarily" the company's competitors.
So far, Qi Biodesign has completed two rounds of venture capital funding, including a seed funding round led by Shanghai Apricot Capital and a pre-Series A funding round led by China-based CD Capital. In total, Zhao said the company has raised approximately $45 million from both rounds.
Going forward, the company plans to continue expanding its genome editing technologies to build a complete portfolio of editing tools. Additionally, it is hoping to push the traits it developed from the lab into the field.
It also plans to expand its head count, currently 65 employees, to about 100 as it starts its own field and greenhouse experiments.
"Something that we really wanted to do is set up a company in China, where we are able to develop really great genome editing IP, and we're able to compete globally," Zhao said.