Biotech firms to ‘hire’ good bugs in war on cancer

Ben Hirschler –

Biotech companies are competing to develop medicines using “bugs as drugs” to fight cancer, building on the latest scientific findings that patients with high levels of good gut bacteria are more likely to respond to modern immunotherapy.
Certain bacteria seem to help in cancer by priming immune cells and smoothing the path for immunotherapy drugs known as PD-1 drugs that work by taking the brakes off the immune system.
Seres Therapeutics hopes to become the first company to leverage this discovery through a collaboration with the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas and the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy that will see its microbe medicine tested in a clinical trial.
MD Anderson scientists were among two groups of cancer researchers who reported on the benefits of good gut microbes in the journal Science earlier this month.
The work underscores the importance of the microbiome — the vast community of microbes living inside us — which has been linked to everything from digestive disorders to depression.
Seres Chief Executive Roger Pomerantz said the aim was to start the randomised, placebo-controlled clinical trial in metastatic melanoma in 2018, evaluating the impact of giving a newly developed Seres microbiome drug alongside a PD-1 therapy.
There are currently two approved PD-1 drugs, Merck & Co’s Keytruda or Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo, but Pomerantz declined to say which would be used.
Seres, backed by Swiss food giant Nestle, became the first microbiome drug developer to go public in June 2015 but it suffered a setback last year when its leading drug candidate failed in a trial against C. difficile, a debilitating gut infection.
Other companies are competing hard. Like Seres, some are eyeing the new opportunity in cancer, as microbiome science moves beyond the initial focus on gastrointestinal conditions like C. difficile, ulcerative colitis and inflammatory bowel disease.
Vedanta Biosciences, another US biotech firm that is an affiliate of PureTech Health, plans to file for approval to start clinical trials in immuno-oncology in 2018, while Synlogic is also working on experimental cancer therapies.
French biotech company Enterome is working with Bristol-Myers on microbiome-derived diagnostic tests and potential drugs to use with the US drugmaker’s immunotherapy medicines.
Advocates argue that microbiome medicine offers a smart way to both tone down the immune system response — useful for conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and allergies — or ramp it up, which is needed for the body to fight back against cancer. — Reuters