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With Startup, Bio Pioneer Tom Maniatis Looks to Spark NY Scene Again

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the lack of such lab space remains the biggest hurdle facing companies with “more modest financial backing” than the round the new startup was able to raise. Still, Kallyope coming together “is an incredibly important milestone for the city’s biotech ecosystem,” he told Xconomy via e-mail.

Several factors have come together the past few years to mobilize the New York biotech scene. Many new leaders at New York’s research centers are biopharma veterans, like Tessier-Lavigne, formerly of Genentech, and Weill Cornell Medical College dean Laurie Glimcher, a longtime Bristol-Myers Squibb boardmember. With their industry experience, they’ve pushed academics to commercialize research with industry help.

The academic groups are also moving to collaborate on science, not just compete. That mindset has led to, among other things, the New York Genome Center. It was Maniatis’s brainchild and officially launched in 2011. Life sciences startup creators like Versant Ventures, Accelerator, Arch Venture Partners, and Flagship Ventures have also set up outposts to form New York biotechs. Versant just funded its first, Kyras Therapeutics, which launched this morning.

“During the last five years there’s been more advances in life sciences in New York as they relate to biotech than any of the previous 20 years,” Maniatis says.

For New York to become the biotech hub it aspires to be, there have to be many more Kallyopes, they have to stay in New York, and they have to succeed, and not just end up as failed experiments. If Kallyope and others like it survive and expand, says Lux partner Josh Wolfe, the “narrative” will no longer be that it’s “too expensive to live in or build in New York.” In that sense, Kallyope is an important test case for biotech in the city.

Kallyope is trying to do what Maniatis says couldn’t have been done even five years ago without the variety of genetic and individual cell sequencing tools now available. He is convinced that communication between the brain and the gut has “profound importance” for our bodies. By deciphering the language and identifying the key molecules speaking and listening, we can begin to understand “how the gut is wired to the brain.”

Kallyope isn’t the only group in industry or academia to explore on a molecular level how the gut and the brain communicate, and how that impacts human health. There has been a huge wave of research the past several years into the microbiome, the trillions of bacteria that live in and around our bodies, and how changes to the microbiome might lead to a variety of diseases.

What that work has started to illuminate is the relationship between the gut and other aspects of human physiology—metabolism, anxiety and depression. “Gut biology relative to other areas is in its infancy,” Thornberry says. “There’s much to be learned.”

(Check out this recent piece in The Atlantic, for instance, which details academic exploration of the links between the microbiome and autism and depression.)

Kallyope, however, isn’t doing microbiome research or developing microbiome-based therapies like Seres Therapeutics (NASDAQ: MCRB), which makes cocktails of bacteria to help balance out the good and bacteria in our guts. Rather, Kallyope will try to understand the signals the cells in our gut send out, what receives them, and how that changes our behavior—say, to make us feel full, or anxious, depressed. With that information, Kallyope would develop small molecule drugs or nutritional products to cross up those signals.

Bay Area biotech Second Genome is also developing small molecules to interfere with the chemical signals between bacteria and the gastrointestinal tract, with a program already in the clinic to treat Crohn’s disease, and a research partnership with Pfizer in metabolic disease.

One proposed advantage of targeting the gut brain axis with drugs: they could provide an indirect route to treating neurological disorders. Looking for ways to treat brain conditions—say, depression—via the gut could lead to drugs that don’t cross the blood brain barrier, and would be “much less likely” to cause some bad side effects, Maniatis says.

Still, metabolic diseases would make sense for Thornberry. She was a key contributor in the development of Merck’s blockbuster diabetes drug sitagliptin (Januvia). But Kallyope won’t say specifically which diseases they aim to impact first, which molecular targets they’ve identified, or when the first of these programs should be in clinical testing. Thornberry, Wolfe, and Maniatis also won’t describe the nutritional products they have in mind, except that, according to Maniatis, they are molecules that “interact with the gut system and affect brain activity.”

The company was named after Calliope, the Greek muse of epic poetry, coined by Maniatis, Axel, and Zuker because of their love for the arts. They want Kallyope to start a trend with more new biotechs growing up in the city.

“It would really be great to see that happen, but it’s not going to be easy,” Maniatis says. There is momentum, and there is desire, he says, but as all New Yorkers know, there’s only so much elbow room in the densest city in the U.S. “If we can just work with the city to generate the infrastructure,” he says, “it can really start happening.”

Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein, who won a Nobel Prize in 1985 for work into cholesterol metabolism, are on Kallyope’s scientific advisory board, as is former Genentech R&D chief Richard Scheller.

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