Evelo, Mayo Clinic team up to use bacteria for cancer immunotherapies

Flagship’s recently merged upstart Evelo Biosciences is partnering with the Mayo Clinic in an attempt to use bacteria to help stimulate an immune response to cancer.

This exclusive collab, financial details of which were not disclosed (although Mayo will receive some money from the biotech), will see the two work on immuno-microbiome-based therapies against a number of tumors.

Under the terms of the deal, Evelo will work with the Mayo Clinic to build up a larger library of cancer-associated bacteria from Mayo’s patient stool samples and tumor biopsies.

Evelo will then work on using these bacteria to try to create a new series of meds from its research, specifically based on their ability to spur the immune system to fight against the cancer.

Evelo is the first company to work to systematically identify, characterize and understand the biology of cancer-associated bacteria and bacterial immune activators. Last month, it was merged with Epiva Biosciences, two companies founded by Flagship’s VentureLabs back in 2014. Epiva is working on treating conditions involving inflammation and aberrant immune responses by modulating the microbiome.

This newly created immune-microbiome company aims to have its first candidate in the clinic next year.

"We are excited to work with Mayo Clinic, a world leader in cancer research," said Dr. Brian Goodman, Evelo's head of scientific strategy. "Understanding how certain cancer-associated bacteria disrupt tumors is an important step toward developing new medicines for cancer."

"This collaboration supports Mayo Clinic's commitment to world leading science and the work of our investigators as we explore the cancer microbiome," says Andrea Mariani, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Mayo Clinic. "We look forward to working with Evelo and on behalf of patients everywhere who may ultimately benefit from our activities."

But microbiome research has come under the spotlight in recent weeks after Cambridge, MA-based startup Seres Therapeutics ($MCRB) posted data from its Phase II trial showing that its oral microbiome therapeutic SER-109 failed to outperform a placebo in terms of cutting the risk of Clostridium difficile infection.

Although not looking at cancer, this setback will hit confidence in the research area as a whole, given its embryonic state.  

When it comes to bacteria actually helping to stop tumors, namely by provoking an immune response to cancer, recent preclinical studies have shown a correlation--something which has piqued the interested of Big Pharmas like AstraZeneca ($AZN) and Roche ($RHHBY), as well other companies and biotechs.

Last November, researchers from the University of Chicago showed that by introducing a particular strain of bacteria into the digestive tracts of mice with melanoma, they were able to boost the ability of the animal’s immune systems to attack tumor cells.

The gains, they said, were “comparable to treatment” with the current hot ticket and latest class of oncology meds known as checkpoint inhibitors, such as anti-PD-L1 and PD-1 immuno-oncology antibodies. And when these bacteria were combined with the cancer meds, they “nearly abolished tumor outgrowth,” according to the UC researchers.

The London-listed biotech 4D Pharma is also working in this field, announcing last year that it had discovered a bacterium that showed an immunotherapy response in animal tests for breast and lung cancers. It plans to start tests later this year.

Meanwhile, it is also believed that some cancers may in fact be caused by certain bacteria, something that has been studied for decades--but its association is controversial.

Some studies have indicated that the growth of a tumor can come as a result of bacterial presence within healthy tissues. A few examples include Helicobacter pylori, a common infection found in the stomach which can cause ulcers and inflammation.

Some research suggests that these changes caused by a long-term infection could lead to cancer over time in a small number of patients--especially cancer in the lower part of the stomach. H. pylori infection has also been linked with some types of lymphoma of the stomach, although other factors, predominately diet-related, are also believed to be a primary cause.  

Conversely, there is evidence that people with H. pylori might actually have a lower risk of some other types of cancer, although it is unclear exactly what role the bacterium plays in this.

Other studies have also found that women whose blood tests showed past or current chlamydia infection may be at greater risk for cervical cancer than women with negative blood test results. Research has not shown that chlamydia itself causes cancer, but it might work with HPV in a way that promotes cancer growth.

In a 2013 paper in the journal Infectious Agents and Cancer, published in BioMed Central, the authors note that “While evidence suggests that this may be the case for certain tumour types and bacterial species [that bacteria may cause certain cancers], it is plausible that in many cases, clinical observations of bacteria within tumours arise from spontaneous infection of established tumors. Indeed, growth of bacteria specifically within tumors following deliberate systemic administration has been demonstrated for numerous bacterial species at preclinical and clinical levels.”

- check out the release

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