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Biotech Gains $1M for Gut-Brain Pain Research


28 Oct. 2021. A biotechnology company developing treatments in the gut for mental health disorders is receiving a $1 million award for research on pain. Corundum Systems Biology Inc. in Tokyo is providing research funds to Holobiome Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Corundum is also a seed-stage investor in Holobiome.

Holobiome is a spin-off enterprise from the lab of molecular microbiologist Kim Lewis at Northeastern University in Boston, aiming to find and develop treatments for neurological disorders in the microbiome, communities of bacteria, viruses, and fungi residing in the gut, as well as other parts of the body. Phillip Strandwitz, one of the company’s founders and now its CEO, studied new methods for isolating and growing microbial species in Lewis’s lab.

Strandwitz and Lewis lab colleagues discovered a neurotransmitter chemical in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, also supports microbial growth, and found a number of gut microbe varieties that consume or produce GABA, indicating a potential key link between gut microbes and brain functioning. The team then analyzed stool samples from healthy volunteers, identifying GABA-producing bacterial species in those samples. And an analysis of functional MRI scans showed people with depression, a disorder affected by GABA levels, have lower concentrations of GABA-associated bacteria in their stools.

Since starting up three years ago, the company created a microbiome atlas, an in-house library of bacterial isolates, which it says represents all known microbial members of the human gut. Holobiome says this resource makes it possible to produce synthetic bacteria for diagnostics and therapies, including some varieties not available in public microbe collections.

Connections between gut microbes and pain

The $1 million grant from Corundum Systems Biology will fund research by Holobiome, a two-year comprehensive assessment of connections between gut microbes and pain sensitivity, starting with internal resources including the microbiome atlas. That assessment is expected to lead to treatment targets and diagnostics for pain and other disorders involving inflammation, including depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Recent evidence suggests the microbiome plays a role in regulating pain sensitivity and the inflammatory response,” says Strandwitz in a Corundum statement. “While these associations strongly implicate the microbiome in the etiology of pain in its many forms,” Strandwitz adds, “we have yet to elucidate the mechanisms driving the observed effects and the path to consistent and scalable therapeutic interventions.”

Corundum Systems Biology, founded last year, is an investment company specializing in companies investigating links between the microbiome and disease. The company also provides grants for R&D to advance technologies, databases, and business development in the field. In June 2021, Corundum provided seed funding for Holobiome, the first direct investment for Corundum, although the amount of the investment was not disclosed.

Hidehiko Otake, CEO of Corundum notes, “The {microbiome] atlas and the facilities used to create it gives Holobiome a unique edge to conduct large-scale testing both readily and flexibly.” Otake adds, “We envision that the outcomes from this research will bring leaps in understanding the microbiome’s role in regulating pain and are very much looking forward to its success.”

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