AbbVie taps Synlogic to take a microbiomic approach to IBD

Synlogic CEO José-Carlos Gutiérrez-Ramos

Cambridge, MA, startup Synlogic signed its first major pharma partnership, teaming up with AbbVie ($ABBV) in a multiyear collaboration in hopes of developing new treatments for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Under the deal, AbbVie is looking to tap Synlogic's in-house platform for crafting synthetic microbes that can modulate the microbiome, a network of trillions of organisms in the gut. The plan is to design biotic candidates aimed at undisclosed targets with ties to IBD, hoping to come up with an oral drug that blends in with patients' microbiomes and interrupts the course of disease. The pair is paying specific attention to Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

Neither company is disclosing financial details, saying only that they plan to advance an untold number of drug candidates through preclinical development with AbbVie shouldering the burden of regulatory filings, clinical development and future commercialization.

The idea is to marry AbbVie's expertise in the field of inflammation, underscored by its success with the top-selling treatment Humira, with Synlogic's novel approach to drug development, the companies said.

Based on work from MIT and Boston University, Synlogic's platform allows for the creation of engineered microbes that can be programmed to switch on and off depending on their bodily surroundings, according to the company, and each can contain two or three targets at the same time.

In inflammation, that could mean a pill that sits inert until IBD flares up, at which point it would dispense a therapeutic payload, Synlogic CEO Jose-Carlos Gutiérrez-Ramos said. The goal is to come up with a therapy that can double the IBD remission rate seen with injectables like Humira, which is around 20% to 25% above placebo, he said.

"To do that, you probably need several mechanisms of action interplaying, and our technology allows us to do that," Gutiérrez-Ramos said.

For Synlogic, the deal comes on the heels of a roughly $30 million funding round that got the company off the ground in 2014. With its venture cash, the company is pressing forward with wholly owned treatments for urea cycle disorders and phenylketonuria with plans to enter clinical development next year.

Adding in AbbVie's undisclosed contribution and a soon-to-come follow-on financing, Synlogic has the capital it needs to advance its in-house candidates and support its partnership, Gutiérrez-Ramos said. In the coming years, the company will likely look for similar deals to apply its platform to more complex diseases, "but we want to make sure we do first things first," he said.

Gutiérrez-Ramos joined Synlogic last year after a stint in charge of Pfizer's ($PFE) biotherapeutics research, joining a parade of high-profile drug developers who have left major players to lead small biotechs. Former AstraZeneca ($AZN) R&D boss Briggs Morrison followed a similar path when he took over Syndax, as did ex-Merck KGaA research chief Annalisa Jenkins at Dimension Therapeutics ($DMTX) and one-time Biogen ($BIIB) R&D leader Doug Williams at Codiak BioSciences.

- read the announcement