UPDATED: Johnson & Johnson takes rare gamble on microbiome science of biotech startup

Second Genome has raised the profile of its early drug research in an emerging area of microbial science, inking a collaboration deal with a pharma unit of industry giant Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ). Janssen Biotech, the J&J unit, and the San Bruno, CA-based startup have joined forces on microbiome drug discovery in hopes of finding new treatments for the inflammatory bowel disease known as ulcerative colitis.

The human microbiome consists of more than 100 trillion bacteria and other microbes that live in our bodies. Advances in genomics and other studies have shed light on how the flora of microbes impact human health, for the better and the worse. In recent years, Second Genome and a growing crew of other startups have launched businesses in this nascent field. Yet the deal with J&J's Janssen shows that a Big Pharma company believes that the human microbiome field is worthy of investment for drug research.

Janssen has committed undisclosed upfront and future milestone payments to Second Genome for the program focused on ulcerative colitis, which causes painful inflammation in the inner surface of the large intestine and affects about 750,000 people in North America, according to the NIH. Second Genome has also boosted its Series A round of financing to $11.5 million, with a $6.5 million third tranche of investment from previous backers Advanced Technology Ventures, Morgenthaler and Wavepoint Ventures. Other investors include Pfizer ($PFE) veteran Corey Goodman, a founder and chairman of Second Genome, and Matt Winkler, a member of the board of directors.

"The role of the microbiome in health and disease has arrived as a significant area of focus in pharmaceutical R&D," said Peter DiLaura, Second Genome's president and CEO, in a statement. "This collaboration with Janssen will identify mechanisms by which microbial populations in the gut have an impact in ulcerative colitis."

Johnson & Johnson has experience with ulcerative colitis, which is among the uses of its blockbuster Remicade. Yet immune suppressors such as Remicade have side effects such as increased risk of infection, leaving plenty of room for drug hunters to come up with safer and better therapies. And the drug giant sees an opening in the microbiome field to improve the treatment of ulcerative colitis.

"This is an area of great importance for our R&D strategy for immunology because we believe it can bring in the mid-term and long-term value toward our goal of addressing unmet medical need," says Miguel Barbosa, vice president of immunology research and partnership strategies at J&J, as quoted by Matthew Herper at Forbes.

As Herper reports, J&J is setting up an innovation center in Menlo Park, CA, to form closer ties with members of the Bay Area biotech community like Second Genome. Goodman reportedly got Second Genome started in 2010, and the company has worked with bioinformatics and genomic tests to uncover drug targets from microbial communities in the body.

Goodman also co-founded the standout cancer drug developer Exelixis ($EXEL), among other ventures, and if his entrepreneurial instincts about the microbiome prove correct, Second Genome could be a winner.

- here's the release
- check out Herper's piece

Industry Voices: Microbiome Therapies - Coming to a Clinic Near You

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