That gut feeling: Microbes under the microscope

bacteria

The typical human body is host to trillions of micro-organisms that play a vital role in everything from digesting food to healing skin.

Yet until recently, relatively little was known about the genetic makeup or distribution of organisms in the human biome. Drug developers had few clues about how to put microbes to work in new therapies. And venture capitalists weren’t exactly plowing money into gut bacteria startups.

That’s changing dramatically. Federal funding of the Human Microbiome Project – a five-year-old, $115 million initiative to categorize human microbiota and analyze their role in human health – has helped spur a wave of entrepreneurial activity.

In the last couple of years, VCs have invested tens of millions in companies developing technologies and therapies tied to the human biome. Recently, one particularly ambitious startup – called Seres Health –  emerged from stealth mode with an announcement of an initial microbe-based therapy in clinical trials.

“There’s a lot of activity around this space. It’s been very hot,” said David Berry, Seres’ CEO and a partner at Flagship Ventures, which incubated the company and is the primary backer of its $10.5 million Series A round.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Seres is currently applying biome-related research to develop therapies for a number of diseases, but its most advanced effort is a treatment for Clostridium difficile infection (CDI).

CDI, a bacterial ailment with symptoms ranging from diarrhea to life-threatening inflammation of the colon, has become an increasingly worrisome disease, as infections, which typically occur after use of antibiotics, have become more frequent and difficult to treat. It’s estimated that 700,000 people are infected each year, resulting in 14,000 deaths.

For Seres, Berry said a distinguishing approach is what the company calls ecobiotic therapeutics — essentially developing cures by identifying how microorganisms are interacting in both healthy and diseased people. The goal is to find the organisms that can be introduced and catalyze a change to bring a sick person back to a healthy state.

For now, most of the activity at microbiome-focused startups is early stage. Seres, incubated by Flagship Ventures, is about 2.5 years along. Second Genome, a San Bruno, Calif.-based startup applying microbiome science to therapeutics, is of similar vintage and is also in growth mode. In June, the company announced it raised the last tranche of an $11.5 million Series A financing led by Advanced Technology Ventures and Morgenthaler Ventures (now known as Canvas Venture Fund).

Among the newest is Ubiome, a San Francisco-based personalized medicine startup that a year ago launched a crowdfunding campaign for a business that will sequence the microbiomes of individuals. There are no sizeable microbiome-related exits, nor even much in the way of Series B funding.

This story first appeared in Reuters Venture Capital Journal. Subscribers can read the entire original story here. To subscribe to VCJ, please email Greg.Winterton@ThomsonReuters.com.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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