Flagship’s Pronutria Emerges to Make Medicines and Medical Foods
Sometimes there may be good protein drugs lurking in your lunch and you just don’t know it. There may be a business in there, too.
That’s one way to look at the latest concept being cooked up at Flagship VentureLabs in Cambridge, MA. The young company, Pronutria, is emerging from stealth mode today after more than two years of work and $10.8 million of investment from Flagship Ventures. The company is publicly discussing its idea for the first time after getting enough technology validation—and enough intellectual property filings—that it’s ready to talk with partners about its unusual approach to drug development and medical foods, says Noubar Afeyan, Flagship’s managing partner.
Pronutria hopes to come up with drugs from an unusual source. It has put together a library of the DNA sequences for making certain amino acids that scientists say have a positive health effect, sort of like how Omega-3 fatty acids are thought to help prevent cardiovascular disease. While some of these amino acids can be found in various forms in nutritional supplements you can get at the local GNC—think whey protein shakes for building muscle—these tend to be mixtures and byproducts that aren’t made with the same purity, balanced ratio of ingredients, and consistency of regulated pharmaceuticals. That means that these products, despite the sometimes breathless hype, can’t make health claims with scientific credibility.
Pronutria is betting that it can make some of these desirable proteins found in the human diet, and make them in purified form, in the right doses and combinations, so that they will deliver a consistent health benefit supported by science. GlaxoSmithKline already has shown that a so-called fish oil-derived “pharmaconutrient” made of purified Omega-3-acid ethyl esters (Lovaza) can make a lot of money. Pronutria’s hope is that it can have similar success creating other such pharmaconutrients, while maintaining a strong scientific reputation that separates it from the protein supplements hawked on TV infomercials.
“We believe we have a platform that can produce the next 10 to 20 Lovazas,” said Robert Connelly, CEO of Pronutria. “We want to stay out of pseudoscience.”
Pronutria was founded in 2010 by Afeyan, David Berry, and Geoffrey von Maltzahn in the same operation (VentureLabs) that started Moderna Therapeutics, Joule Unlimited, and Seres Health. In addition to Afeyan, Berry, and Connelly, the Pronutria board of directors includes Charles Cooney, an MIT professor of chemical engineering; Glenn Nedwin, a former president of Novozymes, an industrial enzymes giant; and Gary Pisano, a professor at Harvard Business School. The company currently has 24 employees, Connelly says.
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