White House launches $121M-plus microbiome research initiative

White House

The U.S. government has launched a new public-private microbiome research fund as it looks to build up the development of bacteria-based meds and other new tech.

Announced from the White House this morning, its Science and Technology Policy group--in collaboration with Federal agencies and private-sector stakeholders--is launching the National Microbiome Initiative (NMI) to “foster the integrated study of microbiomes across different ecosystems.”

Microbiomes are the communities of microorganisms that live on or in people, plants, soil, oceans, and the atmosphere. They are vital in maintaining healthy function of these diverse ecosystems, influencing human health, climate change, food security, and other factors.

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But dysfunctional microbiomes are associated with issues including human chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and asthma. Along with a slew of biotechs, the new deal is set to help better understand how these microbiomes work, and how they can be exploited to create new medicines.

In a statement, the White House said: “The NMI aims to advance understanding of microbiome behavior and enable protection and restoration of healthy microbiome function. In a year-long fact-finding process, scientists from Federal agencies, academia, and the private sector converged on three recommended areas of focus for microbiome science, which are now the goals of the NMI.”

These include: Supporting interdisciplinary research; developing platform technologies; and expanding the microbiome workforce.  

The NMI will launch with a combined Federal agency investment of more than $121 million in its first year for funding in microbiome studies across several areas, including human health and agriculture.

This includes $10 million from the Department of Energy, double that from the NIH, and $16 million from the National Science Foundation.

On the charity and private side, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will invest $100 million over 4 years to investigate and develop tools to study human and agricultural microbiomes, while the JDRF will stump up $10 million over 5 years to address microbiome research related to type I diabetes.

Meanwhile, Cambridge, MA-based Evelo Biosciences is dedicating $1 million to award up to 10 academic research grants for joint studies exploring the human microbiome and cancer. This new funding will support collaborative, multidisciplinary approaches aimed at illuminating how the human microbiome influences cancer susceptibility and progression. Evelo will work with researchers to identify and develop new microbiome-based cancer therapeutics.

As part of today’s announcement, Novartis ($NVS) has also said it has teamed up with the University of California, San Francisco and the Broad Institute to mine microbiome data. The four-year, $8.1 million collaboration will use bioinformatics, synthetic biology and other tools to predict the chemical structures of compounds that can be made by microbiomes.

A number of microbiome startups are already populating the biotech field, including France’s Enterome, which has been making progress while Cambridge, MA-based Seres Therapeutics attracted investors to a 2015 IPO that raised $134 million. Seres’ lead drug targets Clostridium difficile infections by altering patients’ bacterial makeup.

One of the pioneers in the space, Second Genome, is currently pursuing a Phase I program for its lead therapy, SGM-1019, as it explores an inflammatory bowel disease pathway leading to a potential new therapy for ulcerative colitis. Just last month it raised $42.6 million in a Series B round led by the venture arms of Roche ($RHHBY) and Pfizer ($PFE).

Big Pharma has been getting in on the act as well. Last year, J&J ($JNJ) beefed up its R&D efforts in the microbiome space as its subsidiary Janssen Biotech inked a deal to collaborate with Boston-based Vedanta on a new bacterial treatment for inflammatory bowel disease. And it handed over an undisclosed upfront payment and promises of up to $241 million in milestones if their partnership can blaze a path to the market eventually.

And not to be left out, Janssen’s Human Microbiome Institute is also involved in the initiative, and said it will develop a network of entrepreneurs and scientists in the microbiome research field. The JHMI will in addition make "strategic investments" in order to build a portfolio of microbiome therapies and diagnostics, the U.S. drugmaker said. 

- check out the release
- see more from FierceBiotechIT on the Novartis deal

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