The scientific understanding of how people interact with the bacteria within them is leading to a new wave of drugs that fight the bugs in our bowels. While these microbiome therapies are new, they only scratch the surface of science. According to Guillaume Pfefer, CEO of the startup Senda Biosciences, humans evolved with bacteria while at the same time exchanging information about molecules moving between them.
“It’s communication, it’s signaling – on a cellular level,” says Pfefer, who is also a partner at Flagship Pioneering.
This molecular exchange has implications for human health. Senda has analyzed these interactions and gained insights into why they are important and how they can be specifically treated with a drug for therapeutic purposes. The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company has a pipeline of drug candidates in preparation for clinical testing next year and has raised $ 55 million in funding to support that work. The new capital announced on Thursday is an extension of a Series B financing that brings the total for this round to $ 98 million.
Senda was founded in 2019 by Flagship, a venture capital company whose laboratories have spawned new life sciences startups across the life sciences spectrum, including the microbiome. Originally, Senda aimed to address the challenges of delivering a therapeutic payload across biological barriers.
Pfefer, whose industry experience has included senior positions at GlaxoSmithKline and Synologic, said Senda builds on nearly 15 years of microbiome research, but his company is not a microbiome company. Senda analyzes the genetic profiles of bacteria and learns which molecules they produce and how they interact with humans. All of the research produces a large amount of data that is analyzed using artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques. From there, the company tries to learn to intervene in this interaction. This study of interactions between species is a new area of research that Senda calls intersystem biology.
Part of what Senda is today comes from Kintai Therapeutics, a flagship startup founded in 2016. Kintai wasn’t a microbiome therapy company either. When it emerged from camouflage two years ago, it evolved small molecules based on an understanding of how bacteria in the gut and the substances they produce affect human health. That sounds a lot like what Senda is trying to do now.
Senda’s pipeline includes three programs that are being prepared for clinical trials. The first is for bacteria that produce trimethylamine-N-oxide, or TMAO. Research has shown that high levels of this compound are linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular problems. Senda has developed a molecule that blocks the process of TMAO production.
The second Senda program is for metabolic diseases such as obesity and blood sugar. The company’s goal is to intervene in the pathways between bacteria and humans that play a role in obesity and liver health. This research is being carried out with Nestlé Health Science through a partnership announced earlier this year. Under the agreement, Senda will conduct early clinical research, including toxicology studies. Nestlé will conduct the remaining clinical research as well as commercialization. The agreement gives Nestlé rights to consumer applications of products resulting from research, while Senda retains rights to all therapeutic uses, Pfefer said.
The third Senda program deals with cancer. Many patients do not respond to a class of immunotherapies called checkpoint inhibitors. More and more scientific research is pointing to the role of bacteria in the effectiveness of these cancer drugs. Senda designed molecules to block a substance produced by bacteria, which in turn could potentially increase a patient’s response to checkpoint inhibitors.
The new capital will support the three Senda programs that are on track for the clinic. Pfefer said the money will also help advance the company’s technology, including research into how humans interact with the plants they eat. These plants transfer molecular content from their cells to ours. Pfefer said understanding this transmission could open avenues to deliver therapeutic cargo, such as messenger RNA, into body tissues that cannot be achieved with currently available technologies. Nucleic acids, proteins, and peptides are large molecules that cannot be made into pills, so these drugs are usually injected or infused. Senda’s research into how plants transfer material could lead to a way to deliver these large molecules as oral drugs.
The new financing will enable Senda to expand its workforce from 64 to around 80 employees by the end of this year, Pfefer said. The startup is also looking for partnerships with other companies. Pfefer said Senda’s platform has the potential to address many therapeutic areas and that his company cannot be knowledgeable in all of them. The aim is to find the most suitable people to develop these new therapies and get them to patients quickly, he said.
To date, Senda has raised a total of $ 143 million. The expansion of the Series B financing round includes the Flagship investment as well as new investors Longevity Vision Fund, Terra Magnum Capital Partners, Mayo Clinic, Partners Investment and Mint Venture Partners. Previous investors Alexandria Venture Investments and State of Michigan Retirement System also participated.
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