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 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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