Genome Engineering Expert Says Minnesota Needs Big Money and Risk-Tolerant Attitude to become true Biotech Hub

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Genome engineering expert Dr. Perry Hackett was the guest of honor yesterday at the Byolincs “Meet the Expert” series. His mission: to examine ways to make Minnesota a world center for biomedical technology as a 21st century Silicon Valley.

Hackett built a strong career in genetic engineering, or techniques to specifically modify the genome, or all the genetic material, of an organism. Hackett spent a thirty-seven-year career at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities (UMN) and helped to found two biotech companies, Recombinetics and Discovery Genomics.

During his talk, Hackett laid out four key ingredients that he believes are necessary to make Minnesota a world-renowned hub for biotech: money, scientific talent and creativity, biotech leadership, and attitude.

Let’s start with the scientific talent.

“We are one of the world’s hubs for genome technologies and innovation,” Hackett explained.

Several groundbreaking genetic engineering technologies were developed in Minnesota, including the Sleeping Beauty Transposon system and Transcription Activator-like Effector Nucleases (TALENs).

The Sleeping Beauty Transposon system was created by Hackett himself in 1997. This system was integral to perform a technique called gene transfer, the long-term insertion of DNA into the genome of vertebrate cells. This technique can be used for gene therapy, or replacement of defective DNA with functional DNA to treat disease. The Sleeping Beauty Transposon System spurred Hackett’s first biotech startup, Discovery Genomics, in 2000, using the Sleeping Beauty system to treat blood diseases.

TALENs are enzymes, or specialized proteins, that precisely bind to and cut very specific DNA segments. These breaks in the DNA can be used to create defined mutations, or alterations to the DNA sequence. Alternatively, new DNA can be inserted in a highly specific manner between the cut sites. This technique, developed in part by UMN scientist Dan Voytas in 2010, completely revolutionized gene editing, allowing precision targeting of specific regions of DNA at levels “ten million fold higher” than ever before.

Voytas used this technology to launch his own biotech company Calyxt, a bioagriculture startup that genetically engineers healthier, more resistant food plants. Calyxt just issued an initial public offering (IPO) on July 20th, offering stock at $8/share. Less than two months later, the stock is now selling for $28/share.

Hackett’s own graduate student Scott Fahrenkrug used TALENs to also start a genome engineering company called Recombinetics, which Hackett says is a “Minnesota biotech story in the making.” Hackett is co-founder of the company.

Instead of genetically engineering plants, Recombinetics specifically edits the DNA of animals to create more robust, healthier livestock and generate highly specific animal models for pharmaceutical and medical device testing. The biotech firm largely works with pigs as a biomedical model, an animal that is a better mimic of human disease, lifespan, and organ size than mice and rats.

Minnesota arguably has the talent and scientific leadership to be a real biotech hub. What we’re lacking, Hackett said, is money and attitude.

Hackett explained that we need to foster a culture in Minnesota where “early failure is an option” and companies can make mistakes and not be penalized for them.

Hackett himself was told he was a failure for not having an IPO with Discovery Genomics. Some of Hackett’s first research at the UMN was to engineer faster growing Minnesota sports fish. After he successfully made the fish, the project was closed due to ecological concerns from releasing the fish into the lake systems.

“Our work was phrased as a biological Chernobyl that would extend from Minnesota to all the way down to New Orleans,” Hackett explained.

However, he said the team did not give up. This technology eventually led to the Sleeping Beauty system, the UMN Beckman Center for Transposon Research, the UMN Center for Genome Engineering, and Discovery Genomics.

Hackett said another piece missing from the Minnesota biotech ecosystem is big money from venture capital. Although the state was recently ranked as the thirteenth wealthiest city by Fortune, Hackett says that money is not making it into the state’s biotech startups. He explained that without local venture capitalists providing money, attracting outside capital, and bringing in validated leadership, Minnesota biotech companies will be forced to relocate to the funding sources.

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Byolincs is a group within Mayo Clinic dedicated to training and encouraging entrepreneurially minded scientists and medical professionals. The group holds their “Meet the Expert” series on the second Thursday of every month to learn from active bioscience entrepreneurs.