Exploration of the human microbiome has spurred countless questions about the impact the trillions of microbes in and on our bodies have on our health. Those questions have led to a growing number of new biotech companies. One of the first to launch, Vedanta Biosciences of Cambridge, MA, has raised $50 million with plans to take advance a number of drugs—precise cocktails of bacteria—into clinical testing.
Formed by company creator PureTech Health six years ago, Vedanta is trying to understand the relationship between the microbiome and human disease. In Boston there’s Vedanta, Seres Therapeutics (NASDAQ: MCRB) the first publicly traded microbiome drug developer, and Evelo Therapeutics. Enterome of Paris recently opened a Boston office, too. The San Francisco Bay Area has Second Genome, EpiBiome, and uBiome. (Here’s a list of many of the players.)
The quest to understand the human microbiome has been picking up steam. In Washington, the Obama administration just launched the $121 million Microbiome Initiative, adding to a string of high-profile initiatives in cancer, brain research, and precision medicine. And microbiome drugs are making their way into testing. The most advanced candidate, SER-109 from Seres Health, is in mid-stage trials for a dangerous gastrointestinal infection called clostridium difficile (C. diff). Data should come this quarter.
These therapies have several different forms. Enterome and Second Genome are developing small molecule drugs to modify the way bacteria interact with their host’s gut. Synlogic and EnBiotix are genetically engineering bacteria. Vedanta and Seres pack strains of bacteria into a pill.
Other than Seres’s C. difficile treatment and a follow-on drug for ulcerative colitis, all of these efforts are preclinical. But Vedanta CEO and PureTech vice president Bernat Olle views SER-109 as just the beginning for microbiome drugs.
“Clinically it’s been very successful and it’s helped bring the field a lot of attention that otherwise wouldn’t have been received, but I’ve always seen it as a first generation approach that over time ought to be replaced by more refined approaches,” he says.
Vedanta’s first candidate is VE-202, for inflammatory bowel disease, and should begin its first trial in the first half of next year, according Olle. Johnson & Johnson, which inked a $339 million licensing deal with Vedanta in 2015, will be in charge of VE-202 development. Vedanta is broadening its efforts into infectious diseases (hospital-acquired infections that can’t be controlled by antibiotics), allergies, and potentially cancer. Everything in its pipeline is made from cocktails of live bacteria.
Olle says Vedanta can expand thanks to a deeper understanding how the immune system and gut microbes interact. Initially the company focused on microbes that might help tamp down immune responses—and thus treat autoimmune diseases like IBD.
But Vedanta has since identified microbes that do the opposite: they help rev up the body’s defenses, perhaps to mount a stronger fight against an infection or respond to cancer. Vedanta is trying to amass a library of these strains, much like a pharma company might have a slew of chemical compounds to screen through. “We’re trying to make this a more rational, controllable type of approach,” Olle says.
The new $50 million infusioncomes from new backers Rock Springs Capital, the microbiome-focused fund Health For Life Capital, and Invesco Asset Management (one of PureTech’s investors). PureTech also participated.
Vedanta recently moved out of Cambridge’s LabCentral incubator and into 9,000 square feet in Cambridge. It’s hired several executives, among them chief scientific officer Bruce Roberts, formerly of Genzyme, and head of manufacturing Dan Couto, recently of Sepracor.
The cash will help Vedanta drive “multiple” programs towards clinical testing, Olle says, boost its manufacturing capability, and double its staff to 30.
Olle says he focused on investors familiar with the field and deep pocketed enough to “follow up substantially if they see progress.” That’ll be important, since the bills are about to get a lot bigger for Vedanta. With clinical trials on the way, perhaps the company will consider tapping the public markets for help, as well.
“We’re well covered with what we need to do in terms of financing, but of course we’re not taking any options off the table,” he says of a future IPO.