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Synthetic Bio Microbiome Biotech Gains $15M in Seed Funds

Stephanie Culler

Persephone Bio CEO Stephanie Culler (Persephone Biosciences)

19 July 2022. A developer of therapies produced with synthetic biology for diseases linked to microbes in the gut is raising $15 million in seed financing. Persephone Biosciences Inc. in San Diego creates treatments for infants and cancer patients that focus on the microbiome, communities of bacteria and other microbes in the gut.

While experiencing its first venture capital investments, Persephone Biosciences is hardly a start-up. The company was founded five years ago to create synthetic microbial therapies, based on interactions of microbes in the gut and elsewhere, an emerging arena for research, with opportunities for new therapies, including diseases not usually associated with bacteria or the gut.

Much of Persephone Bio’s work involves conducting large-scale observational studies, collecting and processing stool and other samples from participants. Those samples produce data on gut bacteria that the company links to participants’ genomic and metabolic information, as well as electronic health records, to identify microbial profiles associated with specific disease conditions. These detailed data, says Persephone, enable the company to design synthetic live bacteria that provide healthy microbes needed by patients to address their conditions.

As reported by Science & Enterprise in April, Persephone Bio is collaborating with synthetic biology tools and materials company Ginkgo Bioworks to develop synthetic biological therapies from engineered forms of bacteria known as bacteroids that live in the human gut in an anaerobic or oxygen-free environment, where they’re part of a healthy microbiome. While they can become pathogenic and cause infections resistant to antibiotics, say the companies, they are also good candidates for designing synthetic biological therapies.

Correlation between microbiome and progression-free survival

One of Persephone Bio’s major new projects is a clinical study called Argonaut, collecting stool and blood samples from 4,000 individuals with advanced cases of four solid tumor cancers: non-small cell lung cancer, triple negative breast cancer,  colorectal cancer, and pancreatic cancer. Participants are providing two samples over six months, then are tracked for another 18 months to collect tumor scans.

The Argonaut team is looking primarily for correlations between microbiome composition and progression-free survival in patients, as well as associations with immune biomarkers. The company plans to build a data and sample bank linked to patient metadata for future research. Persephone Bio is collaborating with Janssen Research & Development, a division of Johnson & Johnson, on the project.

Persephone Biosciences is raising $15 million in its seed venture round, led by life science investors First Bight Ventures in Houston that specializes in synthetic biology start-ups and Propel Bio Partners in Los Angeles. Joining the financing are Y Combinator, Fifty Years, Susa Ventures, American Cancer Society’s BrightEdge Fund, Pioneer Fund, and Zhen Fund. Persephone Bio took part in Y Combinator’s accelerator program in 2018, according to Crunchbase.

The company’s co-founder and CEO says the new funds will support the Argonaut project and other initiatives. “We plan to deploy this capital to further expand our research and clinical programs across a range of therapeutic areas,” says Stephanie Culler in a Persephone Bio statement released through BusinessWire, “as well as pursue new collaborations. With our Argonaut study ramping up, it is an exciting time for us.”

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Disclosure: The author owns shares in Johnson & Johnson.

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