Lumen plots site at nearby Seattle bakery as it ramps up production of algae-based biologics

To unlock the potential of biologics, Seattle, Washington-based startup Lumen Bioscience turned to a blue-green algae most popular in recent years as a dietary supplement. With three clinical programs now headed for phase 2, the company has decided it's time to expand. 

Lumen has snagged the lease to a former Seattle bakery that it will soon use to make large volumes of biologics grown in the popular food algae spirulina. The plan, for now, is to boost supply ahead of Lumen's upcoming clinical trials, though the site could potentially be used for commercial production in the future, Brian Finrow, co-founder and CEO at Lumen, said in an interview. 

Lumen is working on a pipeline of spirulina-based biologics to tackle diseases like C. difficile Colitis, traveler's diarrhea and even COVID-19. The company's algae-based approach recently drew the attention of Danish pharma heavyweight Novo Nordisk, which teamed up with the biotech in June on a research collaboration to explore Lumen's spirulina development and manufacturing platform in obesity and other metabolic disorders. 

Currently, Lumen can make three kilograms of drug material per week, which it accomplishes in a single room that's been GMP-certified for almost four years, Finrow said. Using spirulina to crank out proteins is "colossally productive," he added. The goal is to get capacity up to 15 kg of drug substance per week using the new facility, he said. 

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Lumen hopes to get the new manufacturing site up and running within six months and is hiring "as fast as [it] can," Finrow said. 

As for why the company hitched its wagon to spirulina's star, Finrow said the blueish-green algae, touted as a superfood, is "about 70% protein naturally." That means it's organically equipped "to express a very high abundance of proteins." Spirulina doesn't sexually reproduce, he added, which means there's "much lower risk of gene escape"—something that's caused problems for others trying to engineer plants for drug production. 

"More importantly, we can grow it indoors at a massive scale because we just need saltwater and light," Finrow pointed out. Because spirulina is photosynthetic, the company can grow it without sterile manufacturing processes, too. The supermarket industry grows spirulina in outdoor ponds, Finrow noted, so "growing it nonsterile indoors is easy."

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The company's platform works like this: First, Lumen adds a gene encoding a molecule like an antibody into the spirulina chromosome. This step is far simpler than engineering Chinese hamster ovary cells or even yeast, Finrow said, noting that Lumen's core technology revolves around the way it engineers its algae. 

Once that spirulina strain is grown, the cell produces the protein and stores it away. Next comes production, when Lumen takes the engineered strain out of the freezer and puts it back into open-top bioreactors, Finrow said. Once the company adds water and a mix of industrially supplied salts, all it needs to do is "turn on the LED lights and let it cook." That process can then be run "more or less indefinitely," Finrow said. 

Lumen turns on the spray dryer when it's time to harvest, turning the biomass into a powder of spirulina cells filled with therapeutic payloads. The powder can then be loaded into dose-specific capsules that are shelf-stable at room temperature. Lumen is interested in tuning its approach to topical and upper respiratory tract delivery, but for now, its focus is on oral products, Finrow said. 

The building where Lumen will set up shop has been a fixture in the Seattle baking scene for nearly a century. It was built in 1929 to house the Buchan Baking Company and was taken over by the Essential Baking Company in the 1990s. The building is also conveniently located right across the street from Lumen's current headquarters and lab, Finrow said in a release.