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29 June, 2018 - 11:54 By News Desk

Cambridge attraction in microbiome science for US companies

It is now widely accepted that friendly bacteria in the gut have a significant role in maintaining our health. 

Emerging knowledge about the role of the ‘microbiome’ – the community of bacteria in our bodies – in health and disease is offering a major new approach for treating and diagnosing diseases for which conventional treatments have been inadequate. 

US interest growing 

As a result, the commercial interest in the microbiome is intense, with a number of pharma giants such as J&J, Novartis, Pfizer, Merck – and now Genentech – having interests in this area. 

Until now, the major limitation has been understanding the precise composition of bacteria in patients and this has held back rigorous design of therapeutics and diagnostics. 

Cambridge-based Microbiotica has addressed this fundamental gap through a suite of cutting edge technologies that enable precise characterisation of microbiomes at scale; with important implications for translation to therapeutics and diagnostics. 

Major US deal

The value of this groundbreaking expertise from the Cambridge-based company was highlighted recently when the Microbiotica secured a $534 million deal with US-based Genentech, a member of the Roche Group.

This substantial deal comes 18 months after the Wellcome Sanger Institute spinout gained £8m seed funding in the form of patient capital from Cambridge Innovation Capital (CIC) and IP Group to set up the company. As CIC gains traction, with long-term patient capital financing its growing portfolio of life science companies, innovative biotechs such as Microbiotica are becoming able to maintain a viable long-term UK presence.

But staying in Cambridge 

Dr Robert Tansley, life sciences investment director at CIC, explains: “Patient capital provides a pipeline of funding that the company can draw down as required by its development. For a disruptive technology this ensures that the focus of the company is on innovation and meeting its milestones. 

“This allows the companies to stay and grow in the Cambridge area, tapping into the broader expertise in this flourishing cluster. This is also beneficial to their US partners as it provides access to further expertise in the cluster.” 

Dr Robert Tansley, life sciences investment director at CIC

Microbiotica was founded by Dr Trevor Lawley and Professor Gordon Dougan, faculty members of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, and Dr Mike Romanos, a seasoned drug discoverer and entrepreneur. It was established to commercialise ground-breaking research resulting from 10 years of investment by the Wellcome Trust in the microbiome field. 

The Sanger group’s work included the first genome-driven design of a live bacterial therapeutic, also the development of a transformational process for culturing gut bacteria and sequencing them at scale. 

Access to US clinical environment

The founders view the patient capital funding model as offering a key long-term benefit for Microbiotica. Dr Romanos, CEO, Microbiotica (pictured top of page) says: “The collaboration with Genentech brings together a world-class pipeline of investigational medicines in Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) with the world-leading microbiome capability of Microbiotica. 

“It will bring precision microbiome analysis into the clinical arena for the first time, enabling us to develop medicines and diagnostics for the benefit of patients. Importantly, it is allowing us early access to the clinical environment in the US and globally. 

“This relationship will also allow us to rapidly build our core platform, the world’s leading Reference Genome Database and Culture Collection, which allows identification of gut bacteria, with unprecedented precision at clinical trial scale.  

“This unique catalogue of cultures and corresponding complete genomes provides the global blueprint of microbiomes. It will underpin our work developing new therapies and biomarkers for diseases across our portfolio.”

James Sabry, senior vice-president and global head of Genentech Partnering, said: “We believe that the microbiome represents a new paradigm in biomedicine both for understanding drug-response and as a novel therapeutic modality. 

“We have chosen to collaborate with Microbiotica because of its high-quality science, and look forward to working together closely to potentially bring new medicines to people suffering from IBD.”

New therapy for intractable diseases

The microbiome creates major opportunities in the diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of disease including enteric infections, autoimmune disorders, metabolic disorders, cancer and neurological disease. 

Through its industrial culturing and sequencing pipeline, Microbiotica provides the best available tool for precise identification of gut bacteria at clinical trial scale. 

The complex datasets that arise from such studies are analysed using AI techniques to discern microbiome signatures, which are progressed as live bacterial therapeutics, or signatures of drug response.

Dr Tansley believes that innovative microbiome companies will soon be attracting more interest. He says; “I am really fascinated by the science in this field.  It is only once in a while that you see a paradigm shift when something totally new and unexpected emerges that will have phenomenal impact on our understanding of health and disease.”

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