DCVC Bio, 5AM back colonizing army of genetically engineered gut bacteria with $33M
A few years back, researchers studying gastric bypass noticed something: The famous gut-shrinking weight-loss surgery might work, but not because it changed how the body absorbs nutrients, as doctors believed. Rather, the surgery changed the microbes in the gut and thus the molecules they secreted, which in turn set off processes that made patients feel full faster.
Researchers then made a simple logical jump: Why not just give the patients new bacteria, and cut out the invasive surgery (bypass the bypass, if you will)? It was hardly a solitary conclusion. Other researchers found engineered bacteria could get patients the molecules needed to boost insulin production, clear out arteries, and help prevent colon cancer.
One problem with this approach – and there are a few – is that bacteria have no on/off switch. Organisms propagate, or die, and doctors can’t precisely control and change dosing, as they can with small molecules.
Novome offers one solution to that problem. Founded in 2016 out of Stanford, the company has spent the last four years building genetically-modified bacteria they say they can send to colonize a patient’s gut and then steadily control through a daily dose of a special prebiotic, a form of food for bacteria. They want to use these robo-bacteria to treat chronic diseases, and they’ve just raised $33 million from DCVC Bio and 5AM ventures, among others, to help launch their first trial.
They also hired a new CEO in Blake Wise, the former chief of the scientifically successful but nonetheless bankrupt antibiotic developer Achaogen.
Genetically engineered bacteria are hardly new. Scientists first edited E. Coli to produce human insulin back in 1978, and Synlogic launched one of the first bacteria-pill trials, for urea cycle disorders, in 2017.
Novome’s platform stands out for its promised nimbleness. Like the legions of tiny robots futurist astronomers believe we’ll one day use to colonize the universe from afar, these colonizing bacteria are designed to essentially be tiny emissaries of a doctor in the gut. The organisms – or what the biotech calls “Genetically Engineered Microbioal Medicines” (GEMMS) – are engineered to depend on a particular prebiotic given daily, which acts as both a signaling device and an on/off switch. A doctor can use them to regulate the bacteria and thus the “drugs” they give off. For chronic disease patients, it’s a chronic treatment that can nevertheless be adjusted.
The biotech so far has published their research in Nature and Cell and their lead program is in hyperoxaluria, a leading cause of kidney stones. They will look to start a Phase I soon, while developing other preclinical programs, including one for irritable bowel syndrome.