A startup that's helping us better understand the bugs that live in us just raised $83 million to start developing treatments for diseases like cancer

Courtesy Ubiome
  • Microbiome startup uBiome, best known for its tests that sequence the bugs living in us, is expanding into drug development.
  • Boosted by $US83 million in series C funding, the San Francisco-based startup plans to take the information it’s gathered to create therapies that act on the microbiome to treat conditions like cancer and metabolic disorders.
  • The team has also recruited former Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez to its board and plans to open up a therapeutics headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The bugs that live in our gut might one day soon be used to guide the way we treat everything from infections to cancer.

Now, uBiome, a startup that sells tests that sequence the microbiome, or the assortment of bacteria and other microbes that live in us, is getting in on the action. It plans to use the information it’s assembled from its tests to go on the hunt for therapies that could treat conditions like cancer, autoimmune diseases, and metabolic disorders.

To assist in that endeavour, the San Francisco-based startup said Friday that it had raised $US83 million in a series C round led by OS Fund, along with 8VC, Y Combinator, and Dentsu Ventures. In total, uBiome has raised $US105 million. The team has also recruited former Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez to its board and plans to open up a therapeutics headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Our mission at uBiome is to advance the science and make it useful” uBiome CEO Jessica Richman told Business Insider.

That started by better understanding the microbiome, then it led to the clinical tests – like the company’s SmartJane test looks at the vaginal microbiome to test for sexually transmitted diseases as well as chronic vaginal infections – and now it will be through finding drug candidates.

The microbiome

Scientists have been working on ways to use the microbiome to unlock new treatments for difficult diseases. It’s led to new companies – both on the medical side and in agriculture– that are taking a range of approaches to looking at the microbiome. It’s often seen as the “forgotten organ.

Read more:
The microbiome has been called the forgotten organ – and it could hold the ‘next paradigm shift in science and medicine’

It’s this world that uBiome wants to tap into, going beyond decoding the bugs that live within you and instead leveraging them into potential treatments for cancer, metabolic conditions and autoiummine diseases.

Here’s how that will play out. All of the data will stay in-house, and users of the different tests can opt in to sharing their data for research purposes. From that data, uBiome has already started finding potential drugs that can then start to be developed, either by uBiome or in collaboration with outside partners.

The drug candidates can be in one of three groups: bugs as drugs (microbes added to a person’s system to treat a condition), drugs for bugs (treatments that target microbes), or drugs from bugs (treatments derived from a particular microbe).

So far, Richman said, the company has collected 250,000 microbiome samples from users, and she expects that sample count to hit 1 million in 2019. Richman said uBiome plans to launch additional clinical tests in addition to SmartJane and SmartGut, which is used to map out the organisms in your gut for people with gut conditions like irritable bowel syndrome.

uBiome isn’t the only testing company that’s moved into drug development. Consumer genetics company 23andMe has been partnering with pharmaceutical companies which mine 23andMe’s database of users who’ve consented to share their data. Then in 2015, 23andMe started getting into drug development on its own, hiring a former Genentech executive, Richard Scheller,to lead the team. Most recently, pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline made a $US300 million bet on 23andMe’s approach to finding new medicines. Much of the approach is different from uBiome, which isn’t sharing its data with partners, just potential therapies after they have been discovered.

And there’s an interesting difference between a genetics test and a microbiome test: Unlike your genome, the genetic information you’re born with, the microbiome can change over time. It offers the possibility that by changing up diet or other factors, you may be able to get your microbes back to a healthy state. For uBiome’s purposes, monitoring changes in the microbiome could also hint at whether a drug candidate is doing what it’s meant to be doing.

“The way we look at it in the same way that a heart rate and blood pressure blood draw would be considered primary care, we think the microbiome should be on the same level,” Bryan Johnson, co-founder of OS Fund told Business Insider.

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