Pills containing live bacteria on the horizon
Taking a pill full of live bacteria does not sound like a medicine that your doctor would, or could, prescribe – but it might soon be. In the last decade, gut microbiome research has drawn a lot of attention and funding, but it was not clear whether any therapies would come out of it any time soon. Synlogic, Inc in Cambridge, MA developed a live bacterial therapy to treat phenylketonuria, an inherited genetic disease that affects metabolism.
Those who are affected by phenylketonuria cannot metabolise phenylalanine – one of the essential amino acids that cannot be made in the body and have to come from food. As a result, unmetabolised phenylalanine accumulates in different organs, including the brain, where it causes neurological defects and causes emotional and cognitive problems.
This therapy promises to end the suffering in a reasonably straightforward way. The bacterial strain is genetically engineered, and it is only activated in the anaerobic environment of the gut because they thrive in the absence of oxygen. A paper in Nature Biotechnology, published this October, reports this treatment successfully tried in mice and monkeys, paving the way for clinical trials. This is by far not the only company in this field. Microbiotica, a spin-out from Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK had recently signed a deal with Genentech and in the US Vedanta is collaborating with J&J Janssen to develop live bacterial therapies to treat inflammatory bowel disease.
At the moment, apart from Seres Health with their treatment for Clostridium dificile infection in Phase III of clinical trials, other live bacterial therapies are at early stages of development but who knows where they are going to be in a few years. At the pharmacy for all one knows?
Nelli Morgulchik is a 3rd year student of Natural Sciences at Churchill College. Image: Max Pixel