We are our bugs – hot Boston startup mines the gut

by Steven Dickman, CEO, CBT Advisors

Seeing the human being as a “superorganism” composed primarily of freeloading or symbiotic bacteria and other parasites and designing products accordingly – that is the basis for a new startup with the alluring name of Libra Biosciences being incubated by PureTech Ventures in Boston.

Daphne Zohar, PureTech Ventures

Daphne Zohar, top Boston innovator

News of Libra began to come out in a piece in yesterday’s (Oct. 4, 2010) Boston Globe citing PureTech managing partner Daphne Zohar as one of Boston’s top 15 innovators. Little else is publicly available about the startup except a one-page web site stating that the company will be active in diagnostics and consumer products as well as therapeutics. Disease areas will include developmental, immunological and epithelial disorders.

The idea of humans and other eukaryotes as walking sacs of bacteria is not new. It was raised elegantly by Lewis Thomas in his seminal and delightful 1978 book Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher.

Libra Biosciences logo
Nor would this be the first time someone tried to apply this concept to predictive disease modeling – witness this paper from Nicholson et al. in Nature Biotech in 2004 exploring applications of “omics” to human-residing bacteria. But this appears to be the first time that commercial activity has coalesced around this interesting field of science, likely driven by advances in high-speed genetic sequencing. (The latest presentation we’ve seen from BGI – formerly Beijing Genomics Institute – reports that BGI alone will have increased to 5 TB of genome sequenced per day – that’s 1500 human genomes – by the end of 2010, up from 100 GB a day at the end of 2009.) There have been some interesting publications pointing to links between the nature of gut bacteria in individuals and their weight. According to these studies, as reported in the Los Angeles Times in June of this year, the more efficient the gut bacteria are at processing food, the more overweight the hosts are. We prefer the inefficient ones!

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Except for the brief mention in the Globe today, Libra is not talking to the media just yet. But this interesting piece of startup news confirms PureTech’s role – alongside Third Rock Ventures and just a handful of other Boston-based firms – as one of the few key bridges across the current yawning gap separating creative academic science and fundable biotech companies.

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