A Startup Is Getting $35 Million to Find Culprits Behind Brain Infections

Genetic researchers are taking $35 million in venture funds to start a company aimed at identifying mysterious pathogens in the brain and unraveling infection mysteries.

(Bloomberg) — Genetic researchers are taking $35 million in venture funds to start a company aimed at identifying mysterious pathogens in the brain and unraveling infection mysteries. 

A collaboration between scientists at the University of California, San Francisco and Harvard University, Delve Bio will sell tests to detect brain-eating amoebas, rare fungi and other exotic infections. First-round funds from Perceptive Xontogeny Ventures, Section 32, Google Ventures and other investors will help Delve advance genetic diagnostic tools to do its detective work.  

The startup plans to focus at first on unidentified culprits behind inflammation of the brain or spinal cord. When undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, they can lead to prolonged hospital stays, unnecessary procedures and even death. A classic cause is a tapeworm in the brain, which is seldom seen in the US, but can occur, said Joe DeRisi, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF who co-founded Delve.

“Most doctors are biased against seeing it, because they never see it,” said DeRisi, who won a coveted MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship in 2004 and was featured in the Michael Lewis book, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story. “We can diagnose it — and then it’s totally treatable.”

Read More: US Falters in Testing to Detect Dangerous Covid Mutations 

The company will need to convince customers to order the tests and insurers to cover them. It will also need to raise awareness to reach clinicians across the country and outside of only the top medical centers.

Doctors treating inherited diseases, cancer and unexplained illnesses in newborns have long used gene sequencing to identify causes and tailor treatment. While infectious disease has lagged behind, Covid-19’s rapid evolution into strains such as fast-spreading omicron has highlighted the benefits of the approach. 

In 2021, the Biden administration said it would invest $1.7 billion to help the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and states expand genomic sequencing for outbreak prevention and response. Still, most available tools don’t cast a net as wide as Delve’s. 

Brain Tapeworms

The company plans to receive samples such as brain and spinal fluid at its San Francisco labs. Within about 48 hours, scientists will scour all the sample’s genetic information — potentially hundreds of millions of sequences — searching for signs of bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses. 

DeRisi is a pioneer in the process, called metagenomics, and UCSF already sells a $2,900 diagnostic test to more than 200 hospitals for patients with brain and spinal inflammation. Now he, co-founders Pardis Sabeti and Matthew Meyerson of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and UCSF colleagues Charles Chiu and Michael Wilson, are moving to make the tests more widely available. 

Starting with a diagnostic that’s currently in use will help Delve get a head start while it determines next steps, said Brad Murray, the firm’s chief executive officer who’s also a co-founder. 

Other areas Delve could move into include infections of the lung, joints and urinary tract, he said. DeRisi said the field has been reluctant to apply this technology to diagnose infectious diseases because of the sheer number of potential causes.

“There’s a new bug all the time,” DeRisi said. “It’s an ever-increasing horizon of things.” 

(Updates with cofounder’s comment in penultimate paragraph. An earlier version of this story was corrected to remove a reference to tissue in the first paragraph of the second section.)

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