Portfolio Company Spotlight
The Platform is the Solution
September 2019 – Comprehensive technologies are always intriguing because they can answer many questions at once. Next generation sequencing doesn’t read a few genes, it can read all of them. Illumina Ventures portfolio company Serimmune is looking at similar scale with its serum epitope repertoire analysis (SERA) platform, which can map a person’s immune system to identify their antigen exposures.
“There are potential applications for the SERA platform in basic research, drug discovery and clinical care, at the very least,” says Nick Naclerio, Founding Partner at Illumina Ventures. “We envision a day when everybody will be getting this test.”
At present, researchers rely heavily on genomics to investigate immunity, which gives incredible insights into cancer, infections, autoimmune diseases and other conditions.
But there’s another side to this equation – environmental inputs – and that’s where Serimmune is filling the gap. They’ve developed the SERA platform, which can interrogate a person’s B cell/antibody responses to identify the many antigens they’ve encountered.
The SERA platform uses E. coli bacteria engineered to express tens of billions of short, random surface peptides. When incubated with biological specimens, SERA reads the antibodies a person has produced from both current and previous exposures.
The next step is computational. Serimmune has terabytes of data, which raise the bar over other technologies. Every sample they process informs the machine learning, making the system even smarter for future samples. The combination provides a comprehensive history of a patient’s immune responses.
“SERA provides us with an epitope map of B-cell memory,” says CEO Noah Nasser. “Based on one’s immune memory we can identify and better understand underlying disease relationships. Right now, we have a panel of markers, which can determine if a patient has been exposed to a variety of bacterial, viral, parasitic and other infections. We also have markers that correlate with autoimmune diseases, like Sjogren's Syndrome, Lupus and Celiac disease and have made progress in oncology, with antibody response to tumor antigens, in a variety of solid tumors.”
SERA Can Do It
Illumina Ventures is excited about the SERA platform because there are so many things it can accomplish. This versatility will bring tremendous benefits to patients with infectious diseases, autoimmune conditions and potentially cancer. Because it is powered by Next Generation Sequencing, SERA can look for dozens of diseases at once in a drop of blood. In many cases, the sensitivity and specificity of the SERA platform exceeds that of single disease tests. For example, the company has developed best-in-class assays for Lyme and tick-borne diseases, which often go undiagnosed.
“With ten billion peptides, as opposed to just a few million, we're looking at anything and everything,” says Nasser. “Our fundamental premise is that, if we can understand what those antibodies are seeing, we can diagnose and treat disease.”
SERA also has applications in research and drug development. For companies developing immunotherapies, the platform may be able to differentiate between responders and non-responders, enabling the development of more successful targeted therapies. In autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases, SERA may be able to delineate the environmental factors that trigger a patient’s condition.
The platform can also support vaccine development, identifying new targets and tracking immune responses to determine if an agent is working. Serimmune is now collaborating with leading academic medical institutions and pharmaceutical companies on a variety of applications.
“If the immune system is involved,” says Nasser “SERA can do it.”