New Startup ViThera Labs Aims “Weaponized” Bacteria Drugs at Gut Diseases

Xconomy Boston — 

Johannes Fruehauf says he started plotting his next move last fall after diminished capital reserves at his previous employer, Cequent Pharmaceuticals (now part of Marina Biotech), led the company to shrink its research staff from 24 people to six. Fruehauf, an inventor of Cambridge, MA-based Cequent’s gene-silencing technology, decided he wanted to launch his own biotech startup.

“I thought it was time for me to look for greener pastures, and so I started ViThera,” Fruehauf said. “The whole premise of starting ViThera was the possibility to weaponize bacteria and equip them with additional properties so they can become therapeutic agents.”

Fruehauf, the co-founder and president of ViThera Laboratories, formed the startup in November 2009 to develop engineered bacteria that deliver therapies to the gut. The firm began operations in its first lab in Cambridge in January. Its business model is to provide contract research services, generating revenue to help support the development of its own technology. (The startup first came to my attention earlier this summer, when I got an e-mail from Fruehauf, whom I’ve interviewed at least twice before, to alert me of his e-mail address change.)

ViThera, which plans to develop its first drug to treat the bowel disorders Crohn’s disease and colitis, is composed of half a dozen former Cequent researchers and others. Fruehauf and his co-founder, Philippe Langella, are the owners of the company. Cequent, a developer of engineered E. Coli bacteria for delivering RNA-interference (RNAi) drugs to the gut, completed its merger with Bothell, WA-based MDRNA last month. The combined firm has been renamed Marina Biotech. Peter Parker, Cequent’s former CEO, and Cequent scientific founder Chiang Li, are both advisors to ViThera.

“I’m still quite new to the business,” Fruehauf said, talking to me via Skype while on vacation on the Spanish island of … Next Page »

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