New PureTech Startup Commense Aims to Protect Babies From Disease

Xconomy Boston — 

[Updated, 12:15 pm ET, see below] Boston company creator PureTech Health already has one microbiome startup in its portfolio, Vedanta Biosciences. Today it’s unveiled a second one, Commense, with a different plan to harness the power of the trillions of microbes in and on our bodies.

Vedanta is developing a mix of bacteria to be used as therapies for gastrointestinal diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, and this week, it cut a deal with a group of Japanese institutions to expand its reach into cancer and infectious diseases.

Commense is a different type of startup. It aims to build on work done by NYU Langone Medical Center scientists to potentially protect babies born via C-section from the future onset of a variety of serious conditions. In a statement announcing the formation of Commense, PureTech executive vice president and Commense co-founder David Steinberg said that a child’s early interactions with microbes can impact the later development of conditions like asthma, food allergies, type 1 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis.

This is the type of thing that NYU Langone Medical Center microbiology professor Martin Blaser highlighted last year when speaking at a panel on the microbiome at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference in New York. At the event, he discussed the potential of manipulating the microbiome early in life. “Can we intervene and put kids on the right track of development?” he said at the time. “There’s a tremendous opportunity there.”

No surprise, then, that Blaser has emerged as a scientific co-founder of Commense, which seeks to exploit that opportunity. The startup has licensed some work from NYU Langone—specifically from the labs of fellow NYU Langone professor and co-founder Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello. In February, Dominguez-Bello published a study in Nature Medicine showing that there could be a lifelong health impact on babies delivered via a C-section. They don’t get the protective microbes transferred from the mother’s vagina, which may be important in fending off a variety of conditions, among them diabetes.

Dominguez-Bello and her colleagues have studied a method of inoculating those babies with microbes as if they had been born through the birth canal. In Dominguez-Bello’s study, infants born via C-section were swabbed with the mother’s vaginal microbes. Commense said in a statement that it is “extending” the approach by developing microbial and non-microbial interventions, but didn’t provide specifics. About one in three babies in the U.S. is born through a C-section, according to Commense. (Here’s more on Dominguez-Bello’s study in the New York Times.)

[Updated w/ comments from PureTech] PureTech CEO Daphne Zohar wouldn’t specify exactly what Commense will do, whether it’s a swabbing procedure or something else, but she did say that the company’s emphasis would be more on “defined products.” PureTech senior associate and Commense co-founder Aleks Radovic-Moreno added that the company thinks there is a set of microbes that a mother passes to a child that is essential to “programming the immune system and metabolism.” Commense aims to understand what the microbes are, and come up with “defined therapeutic cocktails” that could be given to kids to protect them from a variety of diseases.

Radovic-Moreno likened this to how other microbiome companies—like Vedanta, and Seres Therapeutics (NASDAQ: MCRB)—have tried to translate the benefits of fecal microbial transplants into a microbial drug cocktail. Fecal transplants—in which healthy poop is transplanted into a sick person’s stomach—have shown excellent results in stopping Clostridium difficile infection. Seres has a microbiome drug meant to do the same thing.

“We’re really following that blueprint, to some extent,” Radovic-Moreno says.

Radovic-Moreno also pointed to a few different studies that have given PureTech confidence in a link between vaginal microbes and health benefits. One was a study published in 2014 by the American Academy of Pediatrics, in which Danish scientists studied the risk of immune diseases in two million babies born in Denmark over a 35-year period. They found that children delivered via C-sections had a higher risk of asthma, certain immune deficiencies, and other diseases. Blaser has done work suggesting that anbitiotics administered early in life might have an impact on obesity because they change the microbiome.

“There’s a convergence of a tremendous amount of data that supports the role of microbes early in life playing an important role in health,” Radovic-Moreno says.

That being said, Commense has a long way to go to prove this can lead to important, safe, and needed therapy. Zohar says the company is currently conducting experiments to “derisk” the idea to see if it can eventually get to the point of demonstrating proof of concept in humans.

Commense’s other scientific founders are UC San Diego pediatrics professor Rob Knight and University of British Columbia biochemist B. Brett Finlay. Joseph St. Geme III, a pediatrics and microbiology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Sam Kass, a former White House policy advisor, are on the company’s scientific advisory board.

Meanwhile, check out this story for more on PureTech and its model for company creation.