Vedanta ramps up immuno-oncology R&D with microbiome-focused pact

Drugs derived from gut bacteria that make up the microbiome have so far shown the most promise in treating GI diseases, but Vedanta aims to expand into immuno-oncology.

Massachusetts-based Vedanta Biosciences made a splash last year when it rounded up $50 million to advance a pipeline of therapies that target the microbiome—the population of gut bacteria that are thought to play a role in many diseases, including cancer. Today the company, which is an affiliate of PureTech Health, announced a partnership aimed at creating immune-boosting cancer therapies that capitalize on the microbiome.

Vedanta has partnered with Japan-based JSR to advance a set of biotech compounds that activate CD8+ T cells, the white blood cells that play a key role in helping the immune system to recognize and attack cancer. The experimental therapies are derived from bacteria that live in the gut. They emerged from research done at Keio University School of Medicine and the University of Tokyo in Japan, according to a press release.

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Vedanta, which was among the Fierce 15 class of 2016, had had most of its success so far in the field of digestive diseases. It formed a partnership with Johnson & Johnson in 2014 to develop a microbiome-based compound to treat inflammatory bowel disease, and it’s preparing a treatment for C. difficile for human testing.

But Vedanta was founded in 2010 on the notion it could address a wide range of diseases beyond the GI tract by building a library of microbial strains that either up-regulate the immune response or inhibit it. Using the microbiome to fight cancer was one of the company’s priorities.

Vedanta has been developing compounds containing bacteria that activate CD8+ T cells. They are investigating them alone and with checkpoint inhibitors for fighting cancer. The JSR partnership “further strengthens Vedanta’s leading IP position in the microbiome field,” said CEO Bernat Olle, in the release.

The potential to harness the microbiome to fight disease continues to drive deals in the biotech sector. Last week, microbiome startups Crestovo and Finch Therapeutics merged. Finch recently started phase 2 testing of its C. difficile treatment. In September, Eligo Bioscience raised $20 million to advance its lead compound, which uses gene editing technology to selectively kill gut bacteria.

Publicly held microbiome pioneer Seres struggled to recover from a failed phase 2 trial of its drug for C. difficile, but it has now advanced that drug into a phase 3 trial. And it posted early-stage data recently from a trial of its drug to treat ulcerative colitis.

Vedanta didn’t disclose the financial details of its licensing agreement with JSR. But it does expect to file for FDA approval to begin human testing of the lead immuno-oncology compound from the collaboration in 2018.