The Race is On: Pharmaceutical Firms Scramble for a Place in the New, Microbiome Market
Recently, there has been a great deal of interest in characterizing the human microbiome, the communities of trillions of bacteria that reside on and in us. It is becoming increasingly evident that our microbiome, which is the net result of the interaction between our genes, environment and diet, plays a critical role in many facets of our health and disease. Aside from the use of probiotics and fecal transplants for treating specific life-threatening gut infections or inflammatory bowel disease, there has been little activity in using the microbiome in devising treatments to influence our health.
This past May, two large pharmaceutical companies announced their intention to make substantial investments in diagnostic and therapeutic microbiomics. The Paris-based Enterome disclosed that it had raised $13.8 million in venture capital to develop tests that will use the composition of gut bacteria to diagnose inflammatory and liver diseases. In an effort to predict or warn of the onset of disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease, Enterome has created a genetic-sequencing platform that detects changes in stool microbes. The company is hoping that this technology will help avoid invasive colonoscopies.
Shortly afterward, Pfizer announced a partnership with the Southern California biotechnology firm, Second Genome, to study the microbiome of 900 individuals in the hopes of developing microbiome based diagnostics and individualized therapies. Hoping of identify new drugs and drug targets, Second Genome has also partnered with Janssen Pharmaceuticals (a pharmaceutical company of Johnson and Johnson) of Beerse, Belgium. By studying the microbial populations of people with ulcerative colitis, they hope to identify biological compounds that can influence the microbiome to help ameliorate diabetes and autoimmune disorders.
In addition, Miomics, a New York biotech firm, is in the process of developing drugs derived from research on commensal microbes. Commensal microbes inhabit the gut, and Miomics is developing oral, ingestible pills for the treatment of autoimmune diseases, specifically rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis among others.
Alternately, Vedanta Biosciences, a Boston biotech startup, is developing a novel class of therapies that modulate pathways of interaction between the human microbiome and the host immune system. Per Vedanta’ s co-founder, Ruslan Medzhitov, “We have co-evolved with our microbiome, communicating in a language that is critical to how autoimmune, infectious, and metabolic diseases develop. Vedanta will focus on decoding this language.”
Finally, MicroBiome Therapeutics, based in Colorado, is looking for ways to influence the ratio of good microbes compared to harmful ones. They are developing microbiome modulators to act on multiple factors in the GI environment. In contrast to probiotics, which attempt to affect the GI microbiome by adding certain bacteria, their microbiome modulators provide selective growth factors or substrates to augment the growth of targeted desirable bacteria strains.
It appears pharmaceutical companies are now rushing to establish a place in this very exciting and new arena. The results of this investment and research activity will, hopefully, bear fruit in improving our health in conjunction with our partner microbes.
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