Japanese biotech seeks to turn ‘brown gem’ into gold
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As the world battles with the global coronavirus outbreak, Shinji Fukuda, the chief executive of biotech start-up Metabologenomics, remains committed to its mission: creating a “poop data bank” to eliminate all human diseases.
The five-year-old Japanese company is at the forefront of developing technologies in one of the world’s hottest fields in healthcare: the vital role that “gut microbiota” play in maintaining our health and wellbeing.
Gut microbiota or flora refer to the tens of trillions of bacteria that live inside the human stomach and intestines, which medical experts now believe hold important clues to treating a range of illnesses such as diabetes and colon cancer. The vast majority of these bacterial species in the human microbiome are benign and indeed essential for health.
Metabologenomics, with revenue of $1.6m and 11 employees in 2018, is working with more than 35 Japanese companies — in sectors ranging from food, nutrition and toiletries to insurance — to carry out research on intestinal environments by analysing human faeces.
“If our technology, Metabologenomics, is used, it is possible for companies to understand the type of intestinal environment [among their] consumers that their product is most effective against,” Dr Fukuda says. He likes to refer to human excrement as “the brown gem” for the wealth of information it carries about the body.
Metabologenomics ranks 50th on this year’s FT list of 500 high-growth companies in the Asia-Pacific region after delivering a compound annual growth rate in revenue of 139 per cent between 2015 and 2018.
Other innovative Japanese health start-ups also made the ranking. These include Cyberdyne, a maker of robotic exoskeletons; Asahi Intecc, a manufacturer of medical devices for catheters; and SMS, which provides healthcare services for the elderly and medical professionals.
Metabologenomics, also known as Metagen in Japanese, is based in the northwestern city of Tsuruoka, home to one of the country’s leading biotechnology institutes which is part of Keio University.
Founded in 2015, the start-up at one point worked on developing so-called smart toilets to analyse human excrement. But after three years of research, the company is now focused on producing a small kit, called MGNavi, that it claims can preserve faecal gut bacteria at room temperature for as long as a year.
Finding a simple way to preserve these microorganisms for research has previously been challenging; at the moment hospitals preserve microbiota in special freezers for analysis by laboratories.
After the kit is sent to Metabologenomics’ medical institution or business clients to run tests — some companies send faecal material of their employees as part of a health check-up — it takes about three months for the lab to analyse the gut microbiota.
Experts now believe this information can help explain why a particular drug or even cancer therapy is effective in some patients and not others.
The Japanese start-up generates revenue from selling the faecal microbiome and metabolome (the chemical make-up of a biological sample) analysis to these clients, but Dr Fukuda hopes that eventually it can build a collection of gut microbiota data that can be used for treatment.
“Our idea is a poo bank,” Dr Fukuda says. “By preserving the gut microbiota of a healthy person, it could be used to help with a treatment when that person becomes sick.”
Metabologenomics is just one of more than 100 companies worldwide that have focused on unlocking the therapeutic benefits of the gut microbiome, and investors have poured large sums of money into some of the biggest players such as Seres Therapeutics in the US.
The global market for drugs and medicine using gut bacteria is expected to grow nearly tenfold, from an estimated ¥88bn ($738m) this year to ¥845bn in 2024, according to research firm Seed Planning.
Still, experts warn there are challenges to identifying and extracting the benign bacterial species in the gut. There are also regulatory and safety concerns around faecal microbiota transplants — a type of therapy in which faecal matter is transferred from healthy donors into the bowels of the sick.
Health start-ups also face potential funding challenges as the coronavirus outbreak threatens to chill investor sentiment; in Japan, fundraising had been on a rising trend since 2014 until the pandemic hit.
Atsuko Mori, head of analysis at Initial, which tracks fundraising activity by Japanese start-ups, says the impact of the coronavirus is expected to be felt from next year. “It’s a tough situation for those that have not been able to generate their own cash, such as the R&D-focused start-ups,” she adds.
Metabologenomics was launched with capital from its founders and loans from regional banks, shunning investment from shorter-term venture capital funds. But the company plans to list its pharmaceuticals subsidiary to generate further funds.
“We need to continue raising money because our ambition is to make this society disease-free,” Dr Fukuda says.
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