With J&J’s Help, Vedanta Marches Ahead With Microbiome Drug Cocktail

7/3/13Follow @benthefidler

When Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) announced it opened its Boston Innovation Center, it snuck in an unspecified investment in a PureTech Ventures-backed startup named Vedanta BioSciences. And while the exact nature of the relationship is unclear, one thing is for sure: the Cambridge, MA-based startup now has some big muscle behind it to help move its first drug into clinical trials.

PureTech principal and Vedanta chief operating officer Bernat Olle was tight-lipped on the details of the investment Johnson & Johnson Development Corp., the VC subsidiary of the New Brunswick, NJ-based pharma giant made in Vedanta upon opening the Boston Innovation Center last week—or the amount of funding the company has raised in total from PureTech and one other unspecified investor.

But he did offer up some details about the state of Vedanta’s quest to make drugs based on growing knowledge of the bacteria and other microorganisms that colonize the body. The idea is to form cocktail treatments that can combat a whole host of inflammatory and autoimmune disorders without the immune system-suppressing side effects of current therapies.

“It’s essentially a new drug class,” he says. “It’s fundamentally different from small molecules and antibodies.”

Xconomy last checked in on Vedanta when PureTech founded it in late 2010, tapping into the knowledge of immunology leaders at the Yale School of Medicine (Ruslan Medzhitov), New York University (Dan Littman), and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (Alexander Rudensky), among others, that formed the company’s scientific advisory board.

The premise behind the company is to take a deep dive into the interactions between the human microbiome—the collection of the trillions of bacteria, both good and bad, and other microorganisms that live in the body—and the immune system. Many researchers believe that bacteria in the intestines help keep the immune system in check and prevent the overactive immune responses that lead to the inflammation that characterizes diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD. By adding good bacteria into the immune system through a drug, Vedanta aims to rebalance the immune system, and either treat—or potentially prevent—the overactive inflammatory reactions it can sometimes provide. This is important for two reasons. First, it represents a completely different mechanism of action than current therapies, so Vedanta could theoretically combine its drugs with existing treatments known to have some effect. Second, Vendanta believes that by focusing on the microbiome, it can curb inflammation without raising the risk of infection— a big limitation of current therapies for autoimmune disorders and inflammatory diseases.

“Somehow, the microbiome has evolved ways to influence the immune system without causing this type of broad immune suppression that is undesirable,” Olle says.

The field has generated a lot of headlines and, to this point, at least three other startups. A Flagship Ventures-backed startup named Seres Health is also based on the idea of mining the human microbiome for potential therapies. Cambridge-based ViThera Pharmaceuticals, another J&J-backed company, is developing a genetically engineered type of bacteria for inflammatory diseases. And J&J also recently struck a collaboration with San Bruno, CA-based Second Genome, another microbiome-based drug developer. Yet even so, it’ll be a long time before it is really be proven as a potential therapeutic option—none of the three have a drug candidate in clinical trials.

Vedanta, though, is inching its way along. Since its inception, the company says it has created its first drug, VE-202, and a platform it can use to efficiently find other targets in the microbiome that can lead it to other potential drugs.

VE-202 is essentially a mixture of different strains of live bacteria packed into a pill that would be ingested and make its way into the gut, where the bacteria would colonize the intestine, and stimulate the immune system in a specific way. Vedanta’s plan is to initially test that drug as a treatment for inflammatory bowel disease, where Olle says there is the strongest amount of evidence that shows alterations in the microbiome lead to disease symptoms.

“That’s important because the microbiome is a new field of science,” he says. “There’s a lot of connections that are emerging in the literature, some of that will turn out to be noise, and some of that will turn out to be a signal. And in IBD, I think we’re comfortable with the evidence that this is not just noise, this is a real signal.”

One of the advantages Olle notes in developing VE-202 is that it isn’t a new chemical entity—it consists of things that already reside in the body en masse—so Vedanta expects to be able to move quickly into clinical trials. Even so, he shied away from giving any estimates as to when VE-202 would make it there.

Olle says Vedanta has already done some of the preclinical animal studies needed to move VE-202 towards human studies, though it still has some work to do before it takes the drug into trials. Thus, it might be awhile before anyone knows anything concrete about the microbiome’s therapeutic potential.

“If this field is going to be really important to human health, it’s going to have to be shown that translational efforts are having success,” he says. “It’s important that we start transitioning to looking at how some of the basic research that’s coming out can actually be turned into a specific product.’

Ben Fidler is Xconomy's Deputy Biotechnology Editor. You can e-mail him at bfidler@xconomy.com Follow @benthefidler

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  • Jerry Jeff

    Interesting stuff, and really different from current therapeutics. I actually wonder if it will be possible to do meaningful animal studies here. Even the basic toxicity studies might be hard to set up when the baseline flora in mice, rats, pigs, rabbits, or whatever, is so different from that in humans.