LUCA Biologics launches to tackle women's health—through the microbiome

Longtime microbial researcher Jacques Ravel, Ph.D., is putting 15 years of vaginal microbiome work into a new company: LUCA Biologics, which will develop “live biotherapeutics” for various women’s health conditions, ranging from bacterial infections like urinary tract infection and bacterial vaginosis to preterm birth and infertility. 

The company’s first target will be urinary tract infection (UTI), which is estimated by the World Health Organization to affect as many as half of women worldwide but has limited treatments. 

“To date, there really is no treatment for recurrent UTIs, the most tricky ones that leave patients in a very challenging place,” Raja Dhir, LUCA cofounder and chairman of its board, told FierceBiotech. Antibiotics are available for off-label use, Dhir said, but if an infection is recurring, it’s either resistant to those drugs, or there’s something else going on. 

“A reservoir of the infectious pathogen exists in the vagina and gut; it keeps populating in the microbiota ecosystems, resulting in recurrent infection,” he said. 

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LUCA’s pipeline, based on Ravel’s work as a leading scientist in the NIH’s Human Microbiome Project, is designed to prove alternative treatments for various diseases and conditions in women’s health. Armed with more than 15 years’ worth of data in a bacterial strain bank and gene catalog, LUCA has created a platform that can identify strains of bacteria that can modulate the vaginal and urogenital microbiome. It reckons it can deploy these bacteria in treatments against a range of conditions. 

“We have an unparalleled opportunity to make a true impact in women’s health and translate breakthroughs in microbiome science into innovative therapeutics,” said LUCA cofounder Luba Greenwood in a statement. “We are targeting areas of high unmet medical needs to revolutionize treatment for often poorly treated conditions that affect millions of women across the world.” 

It’s not a huge leap to think about using specific bacteria to control and treat bacterial infections. But how does using bacteria-based medicine help someone who is infertile, or who is at risk of giving birth early? 

Turns out, Ravel’s research has shown, the bacteria in the vagina play a role in the “host response” when it comes to fertility or time of birth, Dhir said. 

Ravel’s most recent paper, published in March in Nature Communications, found that women with high levels of a certain type of bacteria were at lower risk of giving birth early, while women with low levels of that bacteria had a higher risk of giving birth early. 

The Cambridge, Massachusetts, company kept details of its programs close to the vest, saying in the statement that it would move its UTI program into “FDA trials” this fall. Dhir could not provide specifics but did say that both phase 1 and phase 2 studies will kick off in the fall. 

LUCA is the first company to launch out of Dhir’s Seed Health, a microbial sciences company that identifies promising research and helps to translate it. Dhir, the co-CEO and cofounder of Seed, declined to say how much funding LUCA has in the bank. 

“There’s quite a bit going on—usually, when you see biotech companies, they are very, very early-stage,” Greenwood said. “What we are excited about here is we have already derisked quite a bit. It’s going to be pretty busy.”