A recent panel discussion at VLAB event at Stanford University examined the role microbes might play in human health. Mark Bunger, Senior Research Director at Lux Research, moderated the event. As an introduction, Bunger shared some information on what would define a microbiome, where it resides, and how big is a mircrobiome. Microbiome is an ecosystem of bacteria, and in the human body it resides everywhere including gut, skin, eyes etc. Bacteria also thrive outside human body, in air and water. Generally, a human body carries 10X more bacterial cells than human cells. We how have tools to measure microbiome and are only now beginning to know and understand its role in human health, including in numerous diseses like IBS, Type 1 and 2 diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, liver disease and more, said Bunger.

Also now there is hope that beneficial foods like probiotics will replace beneficial gut bacteria and FMT or fecal transplant is believed to lead to 90% cure rate. Multi-million dollar research collaborations are under way, focusing on the microbiome.

Colleen Cutcliffe, Co-founder & CEO at Whole Biome, emphasized the need for good quality data for real breakthroughs. Cutcliffe shared her story of challenges she and her co-founders faced in trying to raise funds for Whole Biome. Some VCs did not wish to fund a platform technology, others did not want to fund a diagnostics company with low revenue streams, and when the focus changed to therapeutics, the feedback entrepreneurs received was that there was a need for a discovery platform.

The fundamental premise of Whole Biome now is to start with an indication, or a variety of indications, and generate the highest quality data, said Cutcliffe. One fear, said Cutcliffe, is that, given the hype, if some of the first products to hit the market do not meet expectations, then that could lead to a huge let-down.

She stressed that microbiomes will make a huge difference in healthcare but success may not be immediate.

Karim Dabbagh, Chief Scientific Officer at Second Genome, also stressed the importance of starting with a medical problem and analyzing it at molecular level. Dabbagh said there is a lot of opportunity for entrepreneurs in this space.

However, in addition to having a product with some credibility, it will take some clever, crisper marketing strategy as consumers learn the role of microbiomes in health. Entrepreneurs need to work on ways to marry technology advancements with deeper understanding of micro biomes, said Dabbagh. Technology can help accelerate a molecule for a given indication.

Microbiomes are like an organ in the body and need to be in sync with right food, right composition, exercise and other habits and that kind of information can be mobilized by entrepreneurs.

It is totally personalized health, said Dabbagh.

Jackie Papkoff, Vice President at Johnson & Johnson Innovation, brought some interesting practical perspectives into the mix. This is an emerging field and it is important to consider what drug or diagnostics is. We are learning as we go, said Papkoff. A drug that is a consortium of microbes may not be taken through classic molecule pathway.

If we are seriously looking at microbiomes making an impact on patient healthcare, then this research will need to go through the same kind of rigor as other molecules. She said, J&J is open minded at this point and wants to be part of the exploration and understand mechanisms of diseases, causes and effects, potential deliverables from this project and then analyze decisions regarding therapeutics strategy. Certainly, they would follow matrix for taking the drug forward but “we are also interested in research side of this”, said Papkoff.

Speaking of challenges, Papkoff insisted that sophistication of data is very important and that keeps us on edge. There is tendency among scientists to compartmentalize and in microbiome field, it is important to understand how the process works in a wholistic manner, in terms of how the microbes interact with the immune system, with tissue, with host genetics and so on.

Deeper wholistic understanding may enable us to intervene earlier in the disease, said Papkoff.

Doug Crawford, Associate Director of QB3, said that this is an exciting field but currently there is uncertainty around commercialization. Companies in this field will find brand new business models, in addition to gaining a deeper understanding of biology. This is a profound interactor with our biology and it will have a huge impact on health, said Crawford.


Mark Bünger, Sr. Research Director, Lux Research


Colleen Cutcliffe, Ph.D., Co-founder & CEO, Whole Biome
Karim Dabbagh,
Ph.D., Chief Scientific Officer, Second Genome
Jackie Papkoff, Ph.D., Vice President, Johnson & Johnson Innovation
Douglas Crawford
, Ph.D., Managing Director, Mission Bay Capital, Associate Director, QB3

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AOBiome, Nubiome, Stanford Relman Lab, PacBio

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Written by Darshana V. Nadkarni, Ph.D. Darshana works in Medical Device & Biotech Recruitment. You can follow her blog at www.darshanavnadkarni.wordpress.com or reach her directly at wd_darshana@hotmail.com.