Connecticut-based microbiome therapy company Azitra recently announced a $14 million haul in Series A funding. The round was led by KdT Ventures and previous investor Bios Partners, along with Godfrey Capital and Connecticut Innovations. Azitra, which focuses on dermatologic conditions, will use the funding to expand its team and move therapies into clinical trials.
“We want to leverage the microbiome and take advantage of the contributions that bacteria on our skin make to skin appearance and health, but then amplify it and bring in the ability to deliver therapeutic proteins,” said president and CEO Richard Andrews in a phone interview.
Netherton is a chronic, orphan disease caused by a LEKTI protein deficiency. LEKTI regulates certain proteases, enzymes that breakdown other proteins. When LEKTI is missing, these overactive proteases can play havoc on the skin, which can be particularly harmful to babies.
“These infants, when they’re born, can be subjected to terrible conditions: skin loss, dehydration, infection,” said Andrews. “It’s a real challenge for them without the protection of that LEKTI protein.”
Azitra has engineered a strain of Staphylococcus epidermidis, one of the skin’s friendly microbes, to produce LEKTI. The goal is to stabilize the skin microbiome and replace the missing protein.
“We engineer it to deliver the protein on a nice continuous basis, so the protein is there when it’s needed,” said Andrews.
The company hopes to move its Netherton therapy into clinical trials in 2020 and plans to seek Orphan Drug Designation.
Azitra’s cancer therapy-associated rash drug takes a similar approach, though it does not deliver a therapeutic protein. Because many cancer treatments target fast-growing cells, they can damage the skin, perturbing the normal microbiome and opening the door for more dangerous microbes, such as Staphylococcus aureus.
“Staph aureus is highly antigenic, and the body doesn’t like it,” said Andrews. “You get a massive inflammatory response to the concentration of Staph aureus on the skin. We take away the environment that lets Staph aureus grow by adding Staph epi. Staph epi likes the skin, and it doesn’t like Staph aureus.”
The company hopes the added Staph epidermis will outcompete Staph aureus, keeping it at bay. The treatment could be used before cancer patients receive EGFR inhibitors, which can badly impact skin. Azitra is currently in talks with the Food & Drug Administration to set up a pre-IND meeting.
In addition to funding clinical research, the Series A funding will also augment Azitra’s growing management team. The company recently added microbiologist Trudy Grossman, formerly at Melinta Therapeutics, as vice president of Research. Roger Léger came to the company from Thrasos Therapeutics. He is now vice president of Chemistry, Formulation and Development. Mark Sampson, who came from Botanix Pharmaceuticals, recently signed on as chief scientific officer.
The company has a lot of plans, including a possible Series B. They feel microbiome-based therapeutics offer many possibilities, and they are only scratching the surface.
“We’re really at the beginning of understanding the science,” said Andrews. “We may even be able to engineer microbiome strains to prevent mosquito bites.”
Azitra is not alone in its quest to leverage microbiomes in tackling dermatological problems. Cambridge, Massachusetts-based AOBiome is developing a topical formulation of beneficial ammonia oxidizing bacteria to treat eczema in children. Sarasota, Florida-based Quorum Innovations is trying to develop microbiome therapeutics for a host of conditions including eczema and rosacea. The company also sells a line of cosmetic skin care products called BioEsse that it bills as “world’s first skin microbiome facial care system.”
Photo: freedigitalphotos user Salvatore Vuono