Bugs living in humans breed biotech startups

Humans harbor more than 10,000 different microbes that number in the trillions, and sequencing the genomes of the species promises to unlock a wealth of data for biotech entrepreneurs to use in search of new drugs and diagnostics. Now companies have a baseline case for what the sum of microbes in healthy humans should look like.

Participants in the Human Microbiome Project--a massive effort to sequence the genomes of thousands of microbes that live inside and on our bodies--made headlines yesterday with a slew of new articles in Nature and PLoS publications, after researchers studied the microbiomes of nearly 250 healthy male and female Americans. The findings are a major step forward in a young field that promises to boost our understanding of the interaction of human-hosted microbes, mostly friendly bacteria, and diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome and obesity, Bloomberg reported.

For life sciences entrepreneurs, the vast amount of information from the project could aid their budding biotech ventures. At Boston's PureTech Ventures, partners have launched two startups concerned with the human microbiome: Vedanta Biosciences and a secretive outfit code-named Libra. Also, Mountain View, CA-based Onsel and Cambridge, MA-based Vithera Pharmaceuticals are researching drugs based on bacteria in the human body.

The findings of the Human Microbiome Project "… will constitute a robust baseline for what an average healthy microbiome looks like, and how much variation from that average is typical," PureTech Senior Associate Dr. Bernat Olle told FierceBiotech via email. "This is important and will be useful to companies because if future therapies work by modulating the microbiome of patients, we have to be able to compare the changes we see to meaningful baselines to be confident that there is an effect."

At Vedanta, for instance, PureTech intends to develop drugs that target pathways involving microbes in the body and the immune system to treat diseases. The venture-creation group has kept quiet about the activities around Libra, where the firm has been working with a corporate partner, PureTech Founder and Managing Partner Daphne Zohar told FierceBiotech. "There is a lot of interest in the VC sphere, but more importantly, the pharma industry is tremendously interested in this space," she said. "Over the last year the level of interest from pharma groups has changed markedly."

Yet it's very early days these companies, and there are many unknowns that add risk to the equation. For instance, there are 8 million protein-coding genes in the bugs found in the human microbiome--about 360 times the number in the human genome. And as Harvard School of Public Health's Curtis Huttenhower told Bloomberg, the function of a third to two-thirds of those microbes' genes is a mystery. So biotechs in the field have much to puzzle out before their research leads to treatments.

- here's the news release
- read Bloomberg's article
- get more from the Associated Press report