Pragma Bio searches for cancer treatments hidden in our microbiome

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The natural world has produced many of our most important medicines, but instead of searching under a leaf or rock for the next big cancer drug, Pragmatic bio searches the human body – its swarm of microbes present, to be precise. With its new approach and new $10 million in funding, the startup hopes to embark on the first part of a 10-year plan.

The company is also adopting a new identity – before raised a $4.5 million seed in 2020 as VastBiome, in case the technology sounds familiar.

In case you don’t know, the human body is a total zoo. Countless bacteria and other microfauna permeate us and coat every surface inside and out. Most are benign, a handful malignant, but many are beneficial in ways we don’t fully understand. For whatever reason, certain microbes present in the body can correlate with better outcomes in a number of diseases, including cancer.

“It’s just a good source of interesting molecules,” said Kareem Barghouti, CEO and co-founder of Pragma Bio. “It’s like soil and plants, like where other products come from, we just look at the body. And toxicity? Probably not, it’s already in there.”

There are two core components to Pragma’s approach to ‘mining’ this gut biome. First, there’s a huge map of the microbes, their genes, the proteins and enzymes and other molecules they produce, and how all of those things can relate to disease pathology.

For example, you may notice that in people suffering from a certain cancer, those who respond well to therapy A almost always have a similar microbiome profile: high levels of microbe B, which you know produces high levels of molecule C. It might be a good idea to isolate molecule C and see if it can be used to help others use therapy A, right?

It’s rarely that simple, but Pragma builds a giant statistical model (with machine learning, of course) of all these things to identify likely candidates for research. The first area they’re looking at is immunotherapy in oncology, which appears to have a particularly close relationship to the microbiome.

“We are building a biological map of immune cells linked to bacteria found in the body. But pharmaceutical companies don’t want a microbe, they want a molecule — they don’t know how to commercialize a bacteria,” Barghouti said. “Biology tells us, ‘Hey, go check it out.’ Then we can start picking and choosing a molecule that could be therapeutic, especially if you fine-tune it.

Image Credits: Pragmatic bio

That’s where Pragma brings in its other core component, a much faster method of sequencing and testing the organisms and substances in question. Usually you would identify the microbe you like and then start a bioreactor and grow a few billion of them, then isolate the molecule they produce. This works, but is a time consuming and potentially fragile process.

Pragma Bio’s “self-read” system skips the billions of microbes part and goes straight from DNA sequence to expression and a small supply of the desired molecule in a matter of days. This helps when the pool of molecules to choose from is so large – and the flexibility makes them a good partner for pharmaceutical companies willing to pay for leads.

These partnerships are also needed on Pragma’s side as the next step is where things start to get expensive. Synthesizing enough of a new molecule that is more or less unknown to science and testing its effects in vivo is not cheap or easy. Fortunately, pharmaceutical companies do it every day, happily trading this resource for a potentially beneficial (and profitable) drug candidate.

“We do have the capital to scale up production, but not for many molecules at once,” explains Barghouti. He said they didn’t think it prudent to blow all their company money on their first leads, which like all others can go to nothing – it’s always a gamble in drug development and all you can do is the pile stack in your favor as best you can. can.

Nevertheless, the new funding will be used for this and other scaling efforts; the $10 million isn’t the end of this fundraiser, but it’s a nice round number that the company felt was right to come out with the new name. That change, by the way, came with a realignment of the company around putting already beneficial molecules to work (it’s a pragmatic approach); the old name suggested more of a gut health kind of thing, so they changed the name.

The investment has so far been led by The Venture Collective, along with Viking Global Investors, Merck Global Health Innovation Fund and CJ Investments of Korea.