A new startup is betting that studying the vaginal microbiome — a collection of bacteria in the vagina — could hold the key to a variety of women’s health conditions.
The biotech, LUCA Biologics, is focusing first on urinary tract infections, a common problem among women that accounts for an estimated 10 million doctors visits each year, according to the National Kidney Foundation. LUCA is hoping that insights from the bacteria could lead to new kinds of treatments that are a better option than antibiotics, and the work will soon face a key testing ground as it’s set to be tried out in humans.
Led by CEO Luba Greenwood, a veteran of Google’s Verily, Swiss drug giant Roche and US drugmaker Pfizer, the biotech aims to leverage the work of Chief Scientific Officer Jacques Ravel, who has spent 15 years studying the vaginal microbiome and gathering data around it.
Innovation in women’s health is “really a mission for all of us. So when we saw this is really a women’s health company and approach, personalizing a therapeutic for women, that really brought us all together on the same mission,” Greenwood told Business Insider.
A new focus for the ‘forgotten organ’
LUCA, based in Boston, is coming out of stealth as the microbiome, dubbed the “forgotten organ” by scientists, has become a new focus for small and big drugmakers alike. That work is still early and largely focused on the gut microbiome and diseases of the immune system like inflammatory bowel disease.
LUCA’s focus on the vagina and women’s health represents a relatively new direction for microbiome research, and comes as antibiotics, the typical treatment for UTIs, are proving to be less effective.
The company is named after the bacterium-like “ last universal common ancestor” thought to have been the start of all living things billions of years ago, and the name is also intended as a nod to humanity’s maternal lineage, execs said.
The biotech plans to test the experimental therapy out in women who get recurrent UTIs, paving a path forward for more widespread use. The product is not an antibiotic. Instead, it seeks to stabilize communities of vaginal bacteria.
For those women who get recurrences of UTIs, “there is no treatment for prevention,” said cofounder and board chairman Raja Dhir, who also serves as co-CEO of Seed Health. “We think that is a big opportunity.”
“This is the hardest group and we wanted to start there, because efficacy in this group would be immediately transferable to any other use case,” he said.
With $2.8 million in seed funding from the microbial sciences company Seed Health, LUCA has enough financing to conduct early and mid-stage research trials testing out its furthest-along product, the UTI therapy, Dhir said. Recruitment for the clinical trials is set to begin this year.
Other experimental drugs that LUCA is developing would target preterm birth, bacterial vaginosis, and infertility. These products are intended as vaginal suppositories, meaning they would be inserted into the vagina as part of the treatment.
It could be years before the drugs get an approval decision from the US FDA, since it can take time to test that drugs are safe and work.