Tapping Microbiome Science for New Treatments and Answers to Drug Efficacy

October 26, 2020

Anthony Finbow, CEO of Eagle Genomics, talks to Pharm Exec about how adding microbiome-based evidence to disease modeling will enable the life sciences industry to understand the subtleties of how drugs interact with different human ‘host’ environments, unlocking new potential for stratified treatments.

Anthony Finbow, CEO of Eagle Genomics, talks to Pharm Exec about how adding microbiome-based evidence to disease modeling will enable the life sciences industry to understand the subtleties of how drugs interact with different human ‘host’ environments, unlocking new potential for stratified treatments.

PharmExec: What is the untapped opportunity you are addressing in life sciences?

Anthony Finbow: We are offering companies the chance to gain a greater understanding of the role of the microbiome on human health and the immune system, and in determining the efficacy of their products. Up to now, this has been a significant dimension that has been missing from disease and therapeutics modeling, and we are addressing that gap directly by applying network science to biology — particularly linked to the microbiome.

How are you able to do that?
We are bringing to bear our combined expertise and experience in biology, software engineering, data science and AI, specifically in using network science and graph technology to understand microbes and their impact on the human host in a way that hasn’t been possible up to now. Microbiome science has lagged other fields, so when it comes to making claims linked to the impact of products on the human gut and from that on the immune system and beyond it has been difficult to substantiate them. There can be a fine line between deep science and “quackery.” We are helping companies explore and harness the former.

We have developed a powerful AI-augmented “knowledge discovery” platform which for the first time gives R&D organizations the ability to apply microbiome science to their investigations and developments. As well as graph technology, which allows companies to map relationships and look for correlations between lots of different types of data, we use Microsoft’s advanced machine learning and cognitive services to analyse all of those connections and arrive at robust, meaningful conclusions. In fact we are Microsoft’s first microbiome-focused partner to use these AI analytics capabilities.

What is it about the microbiome that is so important to understand, especially now?

Influencing human genetics can take generations, but the opportunity to continuously improve the human microbiome — the ecology of microorganisms in the human gut — and produce positive health outcomes is thought to be substantial. Particularly now with Covid, there is a real focus on microorganisms and how people can stay healthy and combat the virus. There is growing thinking that Covid’s damage to cells enables other bacteria to get a better foothold. The role of the microbiome could explain other effects of the virus too. So this whole area is at the front of people’s minds right now.

What are you offering to companies?

Firstly, it’s important to say that we don’t just work with pharma. Our clients include innovators in food, cosmetics, personal care & ”agritec” who want to understand the role of the microorganisms in the external world, in the soil and so on, as well as in the human body. We’re able to garner a wealth of experience and insights from across all of those sectors to better understand what the microbiome is and the role it plays.

For pharma, we’re offering a chance to gain an understanding that most companies don’t have currently — but which they now have an increasing appetite for. There is a growing interest in immunopharmacology, and using ”bugs as drugs,” for example. This is about working with the microbiome, or improving its health, to produce better patient outcomes. There is now a very significant number of microbiome therapeutics companies — the likes of Finch Therapeutics, Microbiotica and Seres Therapeutics — which are using microorganisms as the primary mode of addressing gut disorders. More generally, there are lots of other pharma companies that want to understand the role of a good or bad microbiome in metabolising drugs and determining their efficacy.

What is the wider potential here?

It is vast. Microbiome-related research is big business now. Bill Gates has claimed that understanding the microbiome “is as big a breakthrough as anything else we will do in health over the next two decades.” For instance, it will have a bearing on more personalized, or rather ”stratified” medicine — the ability to target treatments more specifically at a certain category of patient (this is also the way cosmetics, personalised care and nutrition is heading).

Eagle Genomics has just reported a very significant round of scale-up investment — $9 million in total. What will you do with the money?

The new funding, which is very exciting, will allow us to build out our engineering and core innovation and science teams, while expanding our footprint more widely across continental Europe and North America. We are already in those markets, but want to deepen our presence.

On top of a very robust product roadmap, which extends a number of years into the future, we have an aspiration to network our customers with producers and providers of data. We want to be the orchestrator of a digital ecosystem for microbiome research. By connecting our clients to external data (from sources such as the European Bioinformatics Institute), we will help them to accelerate their own endeavours, gaining a deeper understanding of the role of the microbiome in disease, wellness and the performance of their products. Global efforts to beat Covid have prompted wider data sharing, but there needs to be a means of more distributed analysis and connective learning.

Network science (in this context, understanding broader biological interactions fully) is the foundation for life sciences in the future, but it relies on the ability to explore data in a more connected way. That’s where we come in.

Why does this area hold so much interest for you?

Microbiome science has really entered the public consciousness now, but my own interest in the subject came when I was diagnosed with a life-threatening auto-immune disease about 15 years ago. During my recovery I read an article about the microbiome in The Economist, which sowed the seed.

We’re at a critical point now with microbiome discovery. Previously, the technology wasn’t there to allow reliable signals to be detected and move knowledge forward, but that’s changing rapidly. This is the point Bill Gates has been making — that for the first time now we have the massive scale of computing and the artificial intelligence capability necessary to deliver robust and reliable scientific evidence to advance microbiome research, and this is a very powerful opportunity. We’re only at the beginning of what many think will be the next major revolution in life sciences and healthcare.

Anthony Finbow is CEO of Eagle Genomics.

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