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Small Biz Grant Funds Superbug Therapy Technology

Pseudomonas aeruginosa

Pseudomonas aeruginosa colony (Harvard Medical School, NIH)

3 Sept. 2021. A company designing synthetic viruses that attack antibiotic-resistant bacteria is receiving National Science Foundation funds to advance its work. NSF awarded Felix Biotechnology Inc. in South San Francisco a one-year $256,000 grant to create an engineered virus with artificial intelligence that combats a range of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Microbes resistant to antibiotics are a continuing problem, particularly in health care facilities. Antimicrobial resistance occurs when bacteria or fungi mutate making current antibiotics ineffective in controlling their spread, leaving patients with fewer options in treating infections. The problem is compounded by overuse of antibiotics by humans or with animals, creating more opportunities for microbes to mutate and become resistant to current antibiotics. As a result, according to World Health Organization, a growing number of infections, such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, gonorrhea, and salmonella, are becoming more difficult to treat as conventional antibiotics become less effective.

Felix Bio designs synthetic viruses that resemble bacteriophages, or phages, natural enemies of bacteria. Bacteriophages infect and replicate inside bacteria, during which time the viruses produce lysin enzymes. Lysins then break down the walls of bacterial cells, destroying the bacteria. In their natural state, phages attack specific bacteria, not various types of microbes, and host bacteria can become resistant to phages. The company says it uses machine learning algorithms to find genetic underpinnings for a range of bacteria, and design synthetic phages that attack those targets.

Predict genetics common to a range of bacteria

The NSF award funds Felix Bio’s development of a machine learning model to better understand the ways phages interact with bacteria. The model aims to determine the parts of phages most effective at combating specific microbes, starting with Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria, and use those findings to design an engineered phage for treating a range of infections from similar antibiotic resistant bacteria. Pseudomonas aeruginosa were implicated in some 32,600 health care-associated infections in 2017, and are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics.

The model will seek to predict the variants, genes, or genomic regions common to a range of bacterial hosts. And from the data, Felix Bio aims to design an engineered phage that attacks the range of bacteria identified by the model. The company believes the NSF project can provide a platform for designing other phages with engineered properties to meet needs in health care, agriculture, and the environment.

“Felix is tackling the most challenging technical hurdles limiting the broad application of phage therapy to the clinic,” says company co-founder Natalie Ma in a statement released through Cision. “With the antimicrobial resistance crisis only growing, new solutions to treat bacterial infections are absolutely essential for ensuring our global future health.” Ma is also the principal investigator on the project.

The NSF award is made under the agency’s Small Business Innovation Research or SBIR program that sets aside funds for U.S.-based companies commercializing scientific research. The grant is a first-phase award to prove the concept, after which a company can apply for more funds to build a prototype or complete preclinical work. NSF says it awards more than $200 million each year in SBIR grants to some 400 start-up companies.

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