The Cambridge, Massachusetts based firm Evelo Biosciences wants to harness live bacteria as cancer and immune-disease treatments.
Evelo Biosciences is the leading immuno-microbiome company developing immunotherapies for cancer, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.
Evelo Biosciences recently merged with Epiva Biosciences. Evelo and Epiva were both founded by Flagship’s VentureLabs innovation foundry in 2014 and followed the lineage of prior VentureLabs-founded microbiome companies Seres Therapeutics (launched in 2012) and Indigo Agriculture (launched in 2013). The Evelo-Epiva merger results in a 42-person company and combines each team’s pioneering research findings, product candidates and intellectual property protected by over 50 patents and applications. Flagship has financed the company with about $40 million to date and plans to make additional investments to support its rapid growth.
The combined company, which will keep the Evelo name, aims to get at least one cancer treatment and one immune-related treatment into clinical trials next year.
If that comes to pass, Evelo would join Seres Therapeutics, Rebiotix, Second Genome, and OpenBiome with microbiome-related medicines being tested on humans. Some of those products are mixes of bacteria—that’s also Evelo’s aim—and some are more conventional drugs that aim to change the way microbes interact with their human hosts. Major drug and nutrition companies such as Nestle, Danone, and Johnson & Johnson have partnered with some of the smaller companies to gain a window into the new field or grab partial rights to the first wave of products.
The notion of bacteria fighting cancer stems from the work of New York doctor William Coley in the late 1800s, who noted how cancer patients recovered more rapidly when they also came down with a bacterial infection. He then injected his patients with the bacterium S. pyogenes and reported good results—the birth of immunotherapy—but the practice faded with his death in the 1930s, replaced by chemotherapy and radiation.
In the age of rapid genome sequencing, the DNA of the trillions of microbes that live in and on us is coming to light, as are the connections between those bugs and human health, and the subtle conditions in which “bad” bugs might play a good role and vice versa. Evelo’s aim is to figure out which bacteria stimulate an immune response that might fight different types of cancer, and under which conditions. Epiva’s role is to discern which bacteria might suppress the immune system and tamp down inflammation or immune-related diseases.
It’s relatively straightforward to deliver bacteria into the gut to fight a gastrointestinal infection; the bacteria themselves are replenishing a natural but barren defense against an invasive bug.
It’s more complicated, however, to help bacteria survive the teeming gut and stimulate an immune response in another part of the body; or make their way through the bloodstream to a tumor or inflammation site. To treat cancer, for example, would the bacteria need to remain in their target niche and grow to provoke an immune response? If so, Evelo must ensure that they don’t grow out of control.
Another problem is that a heightened immune response could also wipe out the bacteria, which could make sustained growth difficult. It could also render a second dose, if needed, ineffective.