Microbiome: The Next Big Biotech Bubble?

141087-050-24850517The Microbiome/Microbiota R&D Business Collaboration Forum kicked off in San Diego in October bringing together over 100 scientists and business executives from all over the globe.  This was a first-in-class research-business hybrid conference, stimulated in part by the completion of the Human Microbiome Project in June 2012 that published a rich source of sequencing data in the public domain.

It is estimated that there are at least 10,000 microbial species including bacteria, fungi and viruses residing in and on the human body, encoding millions of genes.  We have a limited understanding of the role that these species play in human health and disease, but this is a rapidly expanding field as researchers from both academia and industry are beginning to appreciate the complexity and influence microbes have on our health.  Recent advances have demonstrated a role for the microbiome in many diseases including Type-1 Diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s, asthma, colon cancer, obesity and more.  Discussions at the conference suggest that this list is just the tip of the iceberg, and research and business opportunities for developing therapeutics and diagnostics that modulate and test the microbial population are huge.

The conference was attended by academics and biotech/pharma companies from around the globe.  One such company taking advantage of this emerging field is OmniBiome, a San Diego-based life sciences company that is developing innovative CLIA-certified lab services, medical devices, drug-device combinations, vaccines and Rx-Ab therapies to ensure full- term and healthy pregnancies.  The company is focusing on recent studies suggesting that the health and balance of the woman’s microbiome can be linked to pregnancy outcomes.  Another Southern Californian company, Ritter Pharmaceuticals, is investigating the utilization of colonic adaption to improve gut health in a variety of diseases including lactose intolerance.  Andrew Ritter, the founder and CEO, suffers from lactose intolerance and has now become a leading expert in the field.  In addition to small start-ups, large pharma are also recognizing the importance of this emerging field.  For example Dr. Celia Briscoe, a pharmacologist at Janssen in San Diego, gave a presentation describing their interest in the microbiome and metabolic disease.

In general, healthy people have a greater microbiome diversity than those who are less healthy.  The widespread use of antibiotics within our society was therefore highlighted as a problem due to their effect of decreasing healthy microbial diversity within our bodies.  Following antibiotic treatment the microbiome doesn’t return quickly to normal, if at all.  This has lead to the concept of fecal biobanking whereby a patient can have a sample of their intestinal microbiome isolated prior to antibiotic treatment, and then undergo re-colonization once treatment is complete.  Companies such as Affinium Pharmaceuticals are also trying to address this problem by developing targeted antibiotics that potentially have less effect on the broader microbiome.  Affinium’s anti-Staphylococcal antibiotic is one example of this, and is currently in development with an open IND.  Victor Nizet from UCSD also discussed the importance of antibiotics and described how their use in infants can increase the chance of asthma and obesity.  As researchers gain a clearer understanding of the role of the microbiome in health it is likely that the widespread use of broad spectrum antibiotics will become less appealing to the medical community.

The second Microbiome R&D Business Collaboration Forum is scheduled for April 2014 in London, UK.  More information about the event can be found on the website: http://www.globalengage.co.uk/microbiota.html