Mayo Clinic Ventures Firm Explores Commercialization Of Gut Microbe Treatment
The teeming microbial world that is the human gut—in addition to being rather disgusting to think about—traditionally hasn’t held much interest for researchers seeking new ways to treat disease.
Despite the presence of 100 trillion bacteria and other microorganisms that make up the human microbiome, how or even whether they may have a role to play in combatting a litany of maladies has never really been seriously considered.
But that is quickly changing as the Mayo Clinic and the pharmaceutical industry continue a pattern of ever-bigger venture capital investments into a growing coterie of biotech companies at the cutting edge of microbiome research, which some are actually calling the next big thing in biotech. These firms are promising to corral the nasty herds of gut bacteria into the fight against illness, starting with inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, diabetes and colorectal cancer.
One such company is San Francisco-based Second Genome, which first became a Mayo Clinic Ventures portfolio company in 2014 as part of a clinical research collaboration. Last week, it was announced Mayo extended its venture stake in Second Genome as part of a $42.6 million Series B financing round led by Big Pharma giants Pfizer and Roche.
The biotech firm previously raised a total of about $12 million from investors, including Advanced Technology Ventures, Morgenthaler Ventures and Seraph Group.
Second Genome’s product is essentially a platform that “combines genomics technologies, computational biology, and phenotypic screening” to allow researchers to develop drugs targeting the secreted functional proteins, peptides and metabolites of various gut microbes that are suspected of playing “a causal role in human disease and wellness.”
It’s an enticing prospect for doctors, drug companies and investors – the human microbiome as a totally new avenue for disease therapies and drug delivery.
The Second Genome investment from Mayo, Pfizer, Roche and others is one of the biggest so far in the micobiome field, and is being seen as further evidence the sector is gaining traction – indeed, it is being hailed by some as “the next big thing” in biotech.
For instance, last year, Paris venture capital firm Seventure Partners launched a $110 million microbiome fund, with investments in the French companies Enterome Bioscience, LNC and MaaT Pharma; Interface Therapeutics of San Francisco; and the German firm Humedics. And in November, Flagship Venture of Cambridge, Mass., sank $35 million into a new company called Evelo Therapeutics, described as focusing on “leveraging the power of the microbiome to develop novel therapies for cancer.”
It has interested Mayo enough to ink a collaboration deal with Second Genome in 2014. Under the terms announced then, the company was to identify several areas where the microbiome has a potential role in fighting disease, and then work with Mayo clinicians specializing in each of the designated disease areas. They were to prove human samples from patients with the designated diseases and then the company was to use its platform to come up with novel drugs targeting these “microbiome-mediated” pathways.
While the relationship between gut microbes and disease is still largely unexplored, some promising connections have been observed that are leading investors to believe it is possible to pinpoint the right combination of microbes to tweak in order to, for instance, ease diabetes and autoimmune disorders.
So far, Mayo’s Center for Individualize Medicine says it is collaborating with Second Genome in areas such as irritable bowel disease, obesity/metabolic disease and surgery in obese patients with and without Type 2 diabetes.
Mayo Ventures Chairman Jim Rogers says the collaboration shows the clinic shares the company’s belief that the microbiome could prove to be a new frontier in disease research.
“We’re actually pretty big into microbiome, and I think the Center has done a good job in identifying this as very possibly ‘the next big thing,’” he told TCB. “Obviously, there’s still work to be done clinically, and that’s one of the reasons we’re involved with the company — to really understand better what the technologies are, and hopefully be able to translate that knowledge once it becomes clinically relevant.”
Another reason Mayo likes Second Genome is that is working on what it considers the more immediately promising of two different lines of microbiome research: One concentrates on introducing more bacteria of a certain kind into the body to produce a desired result within the microbiome, while another (characterized by Second Genome) emphasizes using specifically tailored drugs to regulate the behavior of the microbes already there.
“I think that’s a really interesting approach, and one that could bear fruit for patients,” he said. “Also, Second Genome seems to be able to move very quickly; they’ve identified a lead target (a drug to address inflammation and pain in ulcerative colitis).”