The microbiome is gaining the attention of investors as it promises to revolutionize healthcare with the discovery of a new breed of therapeutics. Learn more about the companies and investors involved and get SVB’s outlook on the space by reading Emerging Healthcare: Microbiome Investment Trends, a report prepared by SVB Analytics.
In addition, Jennifer Friel Goldstein, SVB Managing Director, Life Science, writes a high-level overview of the microbiome and identifies the potential therapeutic candidates being dubbed "bugs as drugs".
The Microbiome: Why Bugs Matter
We are surrounded, inside and outside our bodies, by microorganisms. These little critters occupied earth some 3.5 billion years ago, well before humans made an appearance. Microbiomes are a community of microorganisms that coexist, influencing each other and the living cells around them. While much of microbiome research focuses on human health, many other areas of research continue to explore how the microbiome shapes our world broadly — from oceans, to climate change, crop cycles and biofuels.
In fact, the microbiome of the ocean produces half of the oxygen we breathe (thanks, phytoplankton!) and removes up to 90 percent of the methane found there as well.
The only organ we aren’t born with
A blog post from Synlogic Therapeutics CEO JC Gutiérrez-Ramos nicely sums up our mind-blowing transition from the womb to the world and the creation of the microbiome "organ":
"One hundred percent of the cells we are made of when we start life are human…. Yet from the moment of birth we are to be soon colonized by so many microorganisms that by the end of this process, only 10 percent of our cells are human with microbes accounting for the remaining 90 percent."
Our physical entrance into the world, the environment around us, the food we eat and where we live all shape and influence the microorganisms that call our bodies home. They in turn influence our health and response to unwanted invaders for the rest of our lives. This ever-changing "organ," our individualized microbiome, contains 100 trillion microbes (compared to our human cells, which approach 10 trillion). These friends exist on our skin and hair, inside our mouths and, of course, in our intestine.
The microbiome grows and evolves with us
The first new friend, Lactobacillus, comes from our mother’s vaginal tract. Shortly thereafter many new entrants join, primarily from our mother’s breast milk. For C-section or formula-fed babies, there is a concrete difference in the microbiome in early years of development; in most children, these differences appear to be resolved by age seven. Fortunately, there are several companies working to develop tests and supplements to provide the same microbiome diversity in infants no matter what birth or feeding conditions are present.
Where we live also influences the microorganisms that inhabit our bodies. In Japan, the general population has gut microbes that have evolved to incorporate genes from local marine bacteria that allow the Japanese to digest seaweed more efficiently than those growing up in the West. In Africa, babies’ microbiomes have developed friendly bacteria that help break down fibrous plant-based foods more prevalent in their local diet than in other regions worldwide.
Pets also play a role in our surrounding microbiome. Two salient points from uBiome describe the results on the microbiome from living with a dog:
- A 2013 study at the University of Colorado showed that adults share more microbes with their own dogs than they do with dogs owned by other people. And cohabiting couples who owned dogs had more bacteria in common with each other than couples who didn’t have dogs.
- UCSF scientists who conducted a study in 2013 suggested that living with a dog in infancy may lower a child’s risk of developing asthma and allergies, largely as a result of exposure to what they call "dog-associated house-dust."
Can this amazing "organ" influence health once developed? Evidence strongly says yes
We’ve established what the microbiome is and how it develops as you grow, but why has there been an increased focus on this? Well, the microbiome is easy to measure, easy to influence and the only organ we can replace without surgery, and it opens the door to brand-new and exciting medical avenues.
As examples, lower-cost next-generation sequencing tools have allowed researchers to characterize individual bacterium that may be harmful or beneficial to human health. Scientists have created what has now been dubbed "bugs as drugs" clinical candidates. Diagnostic testing companies have evolved sensitive tests to track this constantly evolving community with close to real-time monitoring. And finally, advanced bioinformatics tools are being developed to control for the numerous variables that influence what bacteria (and how many) call your body home at any given time.
And investors think something is happening here too — investment in microbiome-focused companies has attracted $840 million in 45 disclosed equity investments between 2010 and 1H 2017.
The space is gaining the attention of big pharma, big data and diagnostics players across the board. Seres Therapeutics raised $134 million to further clinical development of their recurrent C. Diff infection therapy while big companies such as Nestlé, Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline have invested heavily in their own R&D efforts.
So the next time you hear about probiotics, the microbiome, gut-brain correlations, fecal transplants and other bacterially oriented words, remember fondly you have 100 trillion friends fighting to keep your body a happy place for you, and for them to call home.
You can learn more about the investment outlook by downloading Emerging Healthcare: Microbiome Investment Trends, a report prepared by SVB Analytics.
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