Startup pursues new drugs for human diseases by searching gut microbes from wild animals

Many of the beneficial bacteria that reside in the human gut microbiome are being studied for their potential in treating a range of diseases, from asthma to Parkinson’s. But the founders of an Israeli startup believe there’s also inspiration for novel treatments to be found in the microbiomes of more than 200 wild animals.

Wild Biotech is emerging from stealth mode today with a database of more than 1,200 gut bacteria, about 75% of which were previously unknown, according to Neta Raab, co-founder and CEO of the company. The findings were published in the journal Science.

The research added 30 million genes to Wild’s database of animal microbiota, which previously contained 100 million genes. The study also described the methods by which the company’s scientists synthesized enzymes produced by gut microbiota of vultures. The researchers demonstrated that the enzymes detoxify “carrion,” or flesh from dead animals, making it safe for the birds to eat.

The study serves as proof of concept for Wild’s overall mission, which is to develop novel drugs based on gut bacteria from diverse species, said Raab in an interview. “Why stop at humans? Animals living in a much more hostile environment must have developed more diverse solutions than what we see in the human microbiome to fight extreme conditions,” she said. “That’s our motivation to find new pathways, new mechanisms to fight very hard diseases.”

Wild’s staff of geologists and zoologists have been building the collection of gut microbiota by traveling around the world and picking up fecal samples from animals in several countries, including Canada, Israel, Australia, Madagascar and Uganda, Raab said. “We really try to get samples that are as diverse as possible, in terms of geography, climate and species,” she said.

The company constructed its database using a process called “de novo metagenome assembly,” employing artificial intelligence to organize and analyze gut microbes based on known associations with factors such as the animals’ diets, activity and lifespans. “We generate a library of sequences that are potentially therapeutic,” Raab said.

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Several academic teams and startups are pursuing microbiome-based drug leads, mostly inspired by the human gut. They include MaaT Pharma, which raised $20 million in funding last year to advance a microbiota biotherapeutic for the treatment of graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). Other diseases that could benefit from a microbiome approach are Parkinson’s, obesity and asthma.

Wild Biotech, which is funded by private investors Marius Nacht and TechBio, has not disclosed details about its pipeline, but Raab said the company is particularly interested in targeting immune diseases, including those that affect the gastrointestinal tract.

“Animals in the wild have hyperactive immune systems because they always need to fight pathogens from the environment and the food they consume. So how do the gut microbiomes living in these animals survive this immune attack?” she said. “We think they developed ways to bypass the immune system, which could inspire novel treatments for immune diseases.”