It Takes Guts: Blue Turtle Bio on Treating Gaucher with Microbes

In 2012, Nilesh Joshi walked into the offices of Wayne State University’s Blackstone LaunchPad program with a startup idea in need of validation. At the time, he was working to develop bio-manufacturing processes for chemicals derived from cellulose-based feedstock. Joshi signed on to work with Blackstone’s startup coaches and soon developed a rapport with Adham Aljahmi, who was in the program working on a device that screened for cancer. Over time, the two grew close and decided to work together on an entirely new project in biotech.

Joshi and Aljahmi launched Blue Turtle Bio Technologies in 2014 with a mission to treat rare genetic diseases through the gut. The company’s first product is an engineered gut microbe that secretes an enzyme, glucocerebrosidase, which treats Gaucher’s disease. The microbe can be ingested by patients in the form of a time-release pill and would be an efficient alternative to costly intravenous drugs, Joshi said.

Gaucher affects the body’s organs and tissues, causing an enlarged spleen and liver, bone lesions, and painful neurologic complications. Gaucher patients have glucocerebrosidase deficiencies, which allow a fat-sugar molecule called glucosylceramide to accumulate in organs, white blood cells, and bone marrow. This often-deadly accumulation is known as a lysosomal storage disease, and it can result in the spleen growing to 15 times its normal size. Gaucher is the best known lysosomal storage disease, but there are many others.

“Once you have the disease, there is no cure,” Joshi explained. “The traditional approach involves small molecules that come from outside the body, and the cost is very high—intravenous infusions that come with an annual price tag of $300,000. If we can show this works on Gaucher, we can try it on other rare lysosomal storage diseases.”

In addition to the cost, Joshi finds other problems with the way Gaucher is traditionally treated. Because patients are given bimonthly injections—a time imposition in itself, he said—there are often infections and other issues that result from frequently having an IV drip.

“We want to eliminate all those things with gut microbes capable of producing glucocerebrosidase, and once it’s introduced, it colonizes the gut,” he said. “We’ve already engineered the microbe. If we can figure out dosage, sequence, and efficacy, it takes us toward human clinical trials.”

Last year, Blue Turtle Bio was accepted into IndieBio, a Bay Area startup accelerator founded by SOS Ventures. The one-year program comes with access to lab space and a $100,000 investment in exchange for 8 percent of Blue Turtle Bio’s equity.

Joshi described the funding Blue Turtle Bio has received so far as “validation by wallet” and said the next step is to prove the technology’s value. The company has successfully completed a small study in mice demonstrating that its engineered bacteria can secrete proteins that cross the gut-blood barrier. Now, Joshi said, the goal is to raise another round of funding to continue advancing toward clinical trials.

Even though Blue Turtle Bio relocated to San Francisco last year to participate in Indie Bio, Joshi said his company’s journey might have been over before it started, were it not for Blackstone LaunchPad and the mentors he met there, including Xconomist Terry Cross.

“They saw issues coming way before me,” he added. “People need to know that if you ask for help [launching a startup] in Detroit, you will get it.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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