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With Vedanta Deal, J&J Marks Big-Pharma Milestone in the Microbiome

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Through its Janssen Biotech division, Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) is taking over the development of a biotech bacterial mix that within a couple years could become the latest microbiome-related treatment in human testing.

Although the microbiome is an immensely promising area to mine for human health secrets—not to mention fascinating as-yet-undiscovered biology—no big drug company has advanced its own microbiome-based medicine into human trials.

J&J’s Janssen group has been the most aggressive forging early research alliances, however.

Janssen and Vedanta Biosciences of Boston, MA, said today that the pharma company would pay an undisclosed initial fee and as much as $241 million eventually for Vendanta’s mix of bacteria from the Clostridia subspecies that could be a treatment for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Both gastrointestinal diseases seem to be driven by an unhealthy balance of microbes in the gut.

Backed by Boston’s PureTech Ventures, Vedanta and its academic partners have isolated 17 kinds of Clostridia bacteria that, when ingested, might restore that balance. (These are not Clostridia difficile, the subtype that causes severe diarrhea and kills 14,000 people in the U.S. each year.)

The premise is that the bacterial product, dubbed VE-202, will help either replenish or rejuvenate a type of immune cell called regulatory T-cells, which help the body cool off inflammation.

It’s an overload of inflammation—the body’s reaction to stress or injury—that drives both Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, which together are grouped as inflammatory bowel disease.

When asked if VE-202 is expected to boost the population of regulatory T-cells, or simply help those present do their job better, Janssen Research and Development vice president Scott Plevy, who leads the inflammatory bowel disease group, said, “Yes to both. And there might be other mechanisms in effect as well.”

But in the short term, Janssen seems confident that a bacterial mix that gives T-regulatory cells a boost could be potent enough to give IBD sufferers relief.

It has not yet reached the clinic, however, and Plevy said Janssen has plenty of work to do before it gets there. “It’s too early to say,” Plevy said when asked about a clinical timeline. It’s also too early to say whether Janssen will eventually administer the bacteria live, as a mix, or as spores, which are much hardier like the seeds of a plant and which sprout into live bacteria once in the gut.

J&J’s corporate venture group in 2013 pledged cash to help Vendanta, but that deal did not come with any guarantees of a licensing deal. The agreement announced today is “fully separate,” said Plevy.

The deal comes a day after Second Genome of South San Francisco, CA, said it had quietly advanced its own microbiome-related drug into human testing several months previously.

Unlike Vendanta, Seres Health, and other startups using bacteria themselves as the medicine, Second Genome is using conventional small molecule drugs to block the interactions between gut microbes and stomach tissues that seem to be causing inflammation.

Second Genome is also a Janssen partner, but the program it has advanced into the clinic does not fall under the collaboration it forged with Janssen in 2013.