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

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Mallorca. “I rely on a network of advisors and friends to guide me through the jungle.”

Fruehauf’s first gig in the biotech industry was as director of research at Cequent, which he joined after serving as a post-doctoral researcher in company co-founder Li’s lab at Harvard Medical School. He said he considers Li, who is CEO of Norwood, MA-based cancer drug developer Boston Biomedical, one of his mentors. (Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that Li initially launched Boston Biomedical in 2007 to do contract research as the firm advanced its own internal drug pipeline.) So this is the first time he’s been in the top job at a biotech firm.

At ViThera, the contract research side of the house is serving clients focused on RNAi, of which Fruehauf gained expertise through his work on Cequent’s technology. While Fruehauf declined to reveal his full list of clients, he says that one of his early customers is Cambridge-based Aura Biosciences, which is developing novel nanoparticle drugs for RNAi therapies. On a contract basis, Fruehauf is Aura’s vice president of research and development. He also consults for Marina on technical matters involving the RNAi science it has acquired from Cequent.

As for its internal research, ViThera is in the pre-clinical phases of developing a version of a lactic acid bacterium that is engineered to produce an undisclosed anti-inflammatory protein in the gut. (The lactic acid bacterium, lactococcus lactis, is commonly found in yogurt and cheese.) Fruehauf says that the firm has generated plenty of evidence that the treatment works in mice. Yet the goal is to raise money from outside investors to further develop the drug, called VT201, for people with Crohn’s disease and colitis, he says. In the fall, the firm plans to begin raising between $2.4 million and $2.6 million for the project.

A second key technology at ViThera is its transkingdom RNAi science, which involves the use of engineered bacteria to deliver gene-silencing treatments to the gut. While Marina owns the rights to use that technology, originally developed at Cequent, for human applications, ViThera has licensed it for the veterinary care and agricultural markets. So don’t be surprised if RNAi catches on as a way to treat gut diseases in pigs, cows, and other meat sources.

ViThera, though a young company, is already gaining some attention in the innovation community in the Boston area. MassChallenge, the Boston-based startup contest that plans to award $1 million in prizes, has named the biotech startup one of its 110 finalists. . So, it’s possible that Fruehauf could win some extra cash from the contest to help his firm get started on its greater mission—to rig bacteria to fight disease.

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