New Startup Vedanta Harnesses Microbial Activities to Boost Healthy Immune Function

12/23/10

Scientists are finding new and amazing evidence that networks of bugs, bacteria, and other microbes in our bodies might help us maintain healthy immune functions—and the absence of them could make us sick. Vedanta Biosciences, a newly formed startup in Boston, is emerging from top-secret status to reveal its goal of developing treatments based on the relationships between microbes and our immune system.

PureTech Ventures, a Boston firm that specializes in founding life sciences startups based on new scientific discoveries, has formed Vedanta this year with leading academics in the fields of immunology and microbiology, according to Daphne Zohar, a managing partner at PureTech and acting CEO of the company. Vedanta is now coming out of stealth mode as a paper co-authored by one of the firm’s major scientific contributors, Kenya Honda of the University of Tokyo, is being released today in the journal Science.

The paper explains the discovery, which Vedanta is working to commercialize, of how a class of bacteria or “Good Clostridia” in the gut might prevent the immune system from going awry and causing inflammation, according to the startup. (Clearly, these good-guy bacteria don’t include the harmful Clostridia such as C. diff.) The scientists show how feeding the bacteria to mice stymied the development of certain allergies and inflammatory bowel disease. Their study found that the bacteria help recruit regulatory T cells to the gut whose job is to prevent such ailments caused by unchecked immune responses.

Vedanta is working with its scientific advisors to translate this discovery into potential treatments for human diseases, says Bernat Olle, a PureTech senior associate who co-founded Vedanta and serves as the its vice president of operations. “We think that the work Honda has done makes a strong case for” developing drugs for “allergies and inflammatory bowel disease,” Olle says. “We’re in the process of now prioritizing the [health] conditions we want to go after.”

The startup, which is incubating in PureTech’s Boston office, appears to be tapping a highly energized field that is rapidly providing clues about why allergies and autoimmune diseases have been on the rise in the U.S. and other developed countries. The so-called “Hygiene Hypothesis” suggests that a combination of modern medicines such as antibiotics and our vigilant cleanliness has robbed our bodies of microbes that help us combat disease. In 2007, the National Institutes of Health launched a $115 million initiative called the Human Microbiome Project in part help us understand how the trillions of microbes in our systems impact our health.

PureTech’s team has been investigating commercial opportunities in this field for the past two years or so, Zohar says. Prior to launching Vedanta, the firm formed Libra Biosciences, which is focused on opportunities to develop diagnostics, treatments, and consumer products based on research of the human microbiome. (Wikipedia says a microbiome is “the totality of microbes, their genetic elements… and environmental interactions in a defined environment” such as the human gut.) About six to eight months ago, Zohar says, PureTech began discussions with leading scientists about what would eventually become Vedanta.

PureTech initially sought input on the Vedanta project from Ruslan Medzhitov, a professor of immunology at Yale School of Medicine, Olle says. Medzhitov, who has contributed to pioneering immune system research such as the discovery of Toll-like receptors, helped connect PureTech with other scientific advisors and guided the creation of the company. The Yale scientist is the chairman of Vedanta’s advisory board, which includes other founding scientists such as Dan Littman, a professor of molecular immunology at New York University, Brett Finlay, a professor at the University of British Columbia, and Alexander Rudensky, who has professorships at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute, the Rockefeller University, and Cornell University.

“Everything that we’re doing has been guided by this scientific advisory board, as is typical of PureTech companies,” Zohar says. “They are very actively engaged.”

Zohar says that her firm has provided an undisclosed amount of funding for Vedanta itself and has not yet sought outside investment from venture backers or other investors. PureTech is known for finding innovative ways to start and fund life sciences companies, including its model for the startup Enlight Biosciences, which gets most of its support from large companies such as Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) and Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) to advance platform technologies that aim to reduce the risk of drug development. PureTech is also well known for launching Follica, a startup focused on treatments for baldness and other follicular conditions, which has attracted venture funding from major biotech investors such as InterWest Partners and Polaris Venture Partners.

Vedanta is still a young company, but the startup’s ability to recruit top researchers to its cause and to tap research like Honda’s shows that it has the scientific foundation on which to build an interesting business.

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