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Microbiome Startup uBiome Expands into Drug Research with $83M

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Biotech company uBiome started as a “citizen science” project that collected and studied microbiome samples in order to learn how the trillions of bacteria living in and on people’s bodies affect human health.

Six years and 250,000 samples later, uBiome is now moving beyond simply helping people understand their microbiomes. The San Francisco company has raised $83 million in financing to expand into microbiome drug research. But uBiome isn’t abandoning its earlier consumer-focused efforts. CEO Jessica Richman (pictured above) says the new research builds on it, mining the data to find potential targets for its microbiome drugs.

“I think we have an advantage in that area and we’re going to develop some great drugs that are going to help people,” she says.

The latest funding was led by OS Fund and is a Series C round of investment. Others that participated in the financing included 8VC, Y Combinator, Dentsu Ventures, and other unnamed new and earlier investors. In addition to raising cash, uBiome has brought on pharmaceutical experience with the appointment of former Novartis (NYSE: NVS) CEO Joe Jimenez to its board of directors.

UBiome started in 2012 by researching the relationship of the microbiome to human health. The project used crowdfunding to finance its work, raising $363,225 in 2013 on Indiegogo. But more than simply collecting cash, the citizen science effort encouraged the masses to order its sample kit and send back swabs of their microbiomes. The startup then analyzed those samples and provided consumers with a report showing what their microbiomes could tell them about particular health conditions.

That initial microbiome research led to three commercialized tests. SmartGut identifies gut microbes for patients with conditions such as gastrointestinal disorders. SmartJane is women’s health test that screens for sexually transmitted diseases and bacterial conditions. Both are now reimbursed by insurance. Explorer is a kit that allows people to learn more about their microbiomes. It costs between $89 and $399.

Some of the new capital will be used to expand sales and marketing efforts for its current portfolio of tests, as well as developing new ones, Richman says. Those new tests could include companion diagnostics, tests that clinicians use to determine whether a particular therapy is appropriate for a particular patient.

Drug development was not in the picture when uBiome launched, Richman says. The initial goal was to gather data and advance microbiome science in order to make it useful for people. But as uBiome analyzed more microbiome samples and learned more about the role these microorganisms play in human health, Richman said the company also found potential therapeutic targets. The drug research is still in its early stages but she says that based on uBiome’s work so far, the company has identified potential microbiome targets for cancer, autoimmune diseases, and metabolic disorders. Meanwhile, the uBiome database is getting larger. Richman says it will top 1 million samples sometime next year.

While uBiome does not yet have a lead drug, Richman says a microbiome therapy could come in different forms. A “bugs as drugs” approach would use live microbes as the therapy. That’s the approach of Cambridge, MA-based Seres Therapeutics (NASDAQ: MCRB), which has formulated bacterial spores from healthy human donors into capsules intended to treat Clostridium difficile gut infections. Another approach could involve using microbiome-targeting drugs to treat disease. A third approach could derive drug candidates from microbes found in the microbiome.

UBiome now joins a number of other companies aiming to develop microbiome therapies. The lead drug from South San Francisco, CA-based Second Genome is in early-stage clinical trials for inflammatory bowel disease, as well as nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, a liver disorder. Vedanta Biosciences of Cambridge, MA, is researching therapies based on the interaction of the immune system and the human gut.

Richman declined to discuss potential milestones or timelines for bringing a uBiome drug candidate into human testing. But she says the company is using some of the new capital for an East Coast expansion: Cambridge is the home for its new therapeutics headquarters. Richman adds that uBiome plans to pursue potential partnerships with larger pharmaceutical companies interested in developing microbiome drugs and a Cambridge site could facilitate new alliances.

Photo by uBiome