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Building on the latest scientific findings that patients with high levels of good gut bacteria are more likely to respond to modern immunotherapy, biotech companies are now competing to develop medicines using “bugs as drugs” to fight cancer. 

According to Reuters, certain bacteria can help in cancer by priming immune cells and smoothing the path for immunotherapy drugs known as PD-1 drugs that work by taking the brakes off the immune system.

The first company hoping to do so are Seres Therapeutics, through a collaboration with the MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Texas and the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy that is getting its microbe medicine tested in a clinical trial. 

The firm has secured an exclusive option to license patent rights under the deal announced on Tuesday (14th November).

The new research underscores the importance of the microbiome, which has previously been linked to everything from digestive disorders to depression. 

Roger Pomerantz, chief executive at Seres, told Reuters that they planned to start the randomised, placebo-controlled clinical trial in metastatic melanoma in 2018, evaluating the impact of giving a newly developed Seres microbiome drug alongside a PD-1 therapy. 

At present, there are two approved PD-1 drugs, Merck & Co’s Keytruda or Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo, but Pomerantz declined to say which one would be used. 

It’s not just Seres who are putting all their efforts into this, some are even eyeing the new opportunity in cancer, as microbiome science moves beyond the initial focus on gastrointestinal conditions like C. diffcile, ulcerative colitis and inflammatory bowel disease. 

With this in mind, Vedenta Biosciences, another US biotech firm that is an affiliate of PureTech Health, plans to file for approval to start a clinical trial in immuno-oncology in 2018, while Synologic is also working on experimental cancer therapies. 

Elsewhere, French biotech company Enterome is working alongside Bristol-Myers on microbiome-derived diagnostic tests and potential drugs to use with the US drugmaker’s immunotherapy medicines.

Verdanta CEO, Bernat Olle, explained, “This shift makes sense. About 80% of your immune system cells are in the intestine…but cells that are educated in the gut don’t stay there. Every day they cycle several times throughout the body and some of them will go to tumours.”

Advocates argue that microbiome medicine offers a way to tone down the ummune system response, as well as ramp it up, which is needed for the body to fight back against cancer. 

Pmerantz believes that microbiome science has the potential to open up a major new treatment field. Just as Centocor started monoclanals back in the 1980s, we think we are the Centrocor of the microbiome – but of course there will be other companies,” he concluded.