Food giant Nestle has continued its push into pharma with a $1.9bn partnership with Seres Therapeutics to develop drugs for inflammatory bowel disease and a common gastrointestinal infection.
The deal includes a $120m upfront payment to Massachusetts-based Seres, which focuses on developing therapies based on the manipulation of the microbiome - the population of trillions of microorganisms that live within humans.
The terms of the agreement give Nestle Health Science rights to four Seres programmes for Clostridium difficile infection (CDI) and IBD - which includes Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis - outside the US and Canada.
These include CDI treatments SER-109 and SER-262, and the experimental IBD drugs SER-287 and SER-301, which together account for the majority of active projects in Seres' pipeline.
SER-109 is in phase II trials and has already shown efficacy against CDI in a phase I/II proof-of-concept study in 30 patients which revealed a 97% cure rate.
The therapy - and follow-up SER-262 - takes the form of a complex mixture of spores and bacteria that are designed to restore the normal balance of micro-organisms in the GI tract and prevent recurring CDI in patients who suffer from repeated attacks of the infection.
The FDA has granted SER-109 breakthrough status in this indication, as an off-the-shelf alternative to faecal microbiota transplants (FMT) which have shown some success in CDI trials.
CDI is the leading cause of hospital-acquired infection in the US and is responsible for the deaths of approximately 29,000 Americans each year, according to Seres. While antibiotic therapy is generally effective, it can disturb the microbiome and make recurrent CDI more likely.
SER-287 is another oral microbiome therapeutic which is currently being evaluated in a phase Ib trial involving people with mild to moderate ulcerative colitis. The principle behind the treatment is that IBD can arise from an imbalance in the gut microbiome, and restoring the normal microflora can reduce the triggers of the immune reactions that cause symptoms.
The deal with Nestle reflects the growing interest in three-year-old Seres, which was among the ranks of biopharma companies that successfully closed initial public offerings (IPOs) during 2015, raising some $140m. The company has been led by former Merck & Co executive Roger Pomerantz since 2014.
Meanwhile, Nestle Health Science has made a series of acquisitions in the last few years as it builds what it describes as a "new industry between the traditional nutrition and pharmaceutical industries."
In 2010 it acquired clinical nutrition company Vitaflo, following that with the purchase of chronic kidney disease specialist CM&D Pharma and GI and oncology firm Prometheus as well as taking a minority stake in Accera, a developer of therapies for neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer's disease.