Microbiome Startup Seres Health Tabs Pharma Vet Pomerantz as CEO

6/2/14Follow @alexlash

Seres Health said Monday that Roger Pomerantz, an infectious disease expert who spent several years as a top Merck & Co. executive, is the startup’s new CEO, replacing David Berry.

Cambridge, MA-based Seres is one of just a few venture-backed firms pursuing treatments based on emerging research on the human microbiome, the collection of trillions of bacteria and other microbes living in our gut, on our skin, and in other bodily locations.

Seres gestated within Flagship Ventures’ VentureLabs program before emerging in 2012. Late last year, the company announced a $10.5 million Series A funding round, with Pomerantz joining as chairman.

He’ll continue as chairman but will now oversee day-to-day operations as the firm moves its first product, SER-109, through clinical trials to treat a sometimes deadly infection from the bacterium Clostridium difficile, known in shorthand as “C. diff.” Seres released interim Phase 1 data in January.

There are traditional antibiotic treatments for C. diff. But the bug is growing increasingly resistant, and the severe diarrhea it causes is responsible for 14,000 deaths a year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control.

C. diff infection takes hold, for example, when “good” bacteria are wiped out with antibiotics, or a patient is weakened by surgery. (That’s why the infection often occurs in a hospital.) Inspired by the success rates of the non-commercial treatment method of fecal transplantation, Seres wants to give C. diff patients a pill made from live bacteria that will bring balance back into the gut and give the good bacteria the chance to repopulate.

In an interview with Xconomy last November, former CEO Berry, the Flagship partner who helped develop Seres from scratch, wouldn’t say how many of these “good” bugs have to go into a single pill, or how Seres will manufacture these products consistently. Manufacturing is a big question, because consistency with biological products can hamstring even seasoned manufacturing veterans of well-established drugs—as Genzyme learned a few years ago when its Boston-area plant making two of its key products was bedeviled by contamination. The episode weakened the company and led to its eventual sale.

Berry told Xconomy in November, “We’ve spent quite a bit of time figuring this out. We have quite a bit of IP around this. Making sure you get right organisms and you can formulate them properly is quite important.”

Berry remains a Seres director. Flagship has two of the five board seats, with its founder Noubar Afeyan holding one as well.

Despite some groundbreaking research into the microbiome, few startups have emerged. Another Boston-area biotech, Vedanta Biosciences, is also developing bacterial mixes as prescription drugs.

Vedanta is building upon research in Japan that shows a group of Clostridium bacteria (not the toxic kind) are key to preserving intestinal health. The company, created by PureTech Ventures in Boston and run by two PureTech partners, is developing a mix of these Clostridia to combat inflammatory disease. Meanwhile, near San Francisco, a startup called Second Genome is looking to develop traditional small molecules that alter the interactions between gut bacteria and our bodies that lead to inflammatory and metabolic disease.

Alex Lash is Xconomy's National Biotech Editor. He is based in San Francisco. Follow @alexlash

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