Probiotics on the market today promise all sorts of “good things” you need for a healthy gut, which we now know is important in many diseases and conditions. Unlocked Labs is taking the opposite approach – it is taking “bad things” out of the gut, with a small twist.
Take hyperuricemia as an example, which occurs in over 20% of the adult population. This is a precursor condition to gout caused by a buildup of a waste product called uric acid in your blood. As the condition gets worse, uric acid crystals start to form and get deposited in tissues and joints – especially in the big toe, causing very severe pain and discomfort to tens of millions of sufferers. Increased serum uric acid above a specific threshold (over 7 mg/dL) is a requirement for the formation of uric acid crystals. Unlocked Labs is taking the interesting approach of sequestering and eliminating uric acid from the gut, thereby enabling the body to equilibrate and safely remove it from the vascular system, thus helping to prevent and alleviate severe joint pain. The same is true in hyperoxaluria (and a number of other conditions) where the build up of oxalic acid which, if left unchecked, leads to very painful kidney stones.
One can certainly perform serious genetic engineering to turn microbes into super toxin scrubbers in your gut. But doing so might have unintended safety effects which would require a new drug application that goes through the live biotherapeutics (LBP) pathway to obtain FDA market approval. We are yet to have a single approved drug from this pathway despite over a dozen companies with LBPs in clinical development, with cumulative clinical development investments now totaling several billion. What if certain selected probiotic bacteria already have dormant abilities to precisely sequester and biodegrade specific toxins? Further, what if unlocking this ability can be done in such a way as to allow the organism to still be classified as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) and sold as a probiotic dietary supplement? This would enable innovative and purposeful probiotics to come to market immediately to meet the unmet needs of those who spend hundreds of dollars each month trying to manage these and other similar painful conditions.
Christoph Geisler, master microbiologist and CEO of Unlocked Labs, came upon this insight a few years ago and has been creating a library of dormant functionalities within probiotic bacteria as well as a method for safely unlocking this functionality without affecting anything else. He paired up with his business partner and co-founder, James Francis, who watched his rugged and tough dad suffer from gout pain and become determined to do something about it. The pair are also determined to answer the question: Can any good synbio innovations come from Laramie, Wyoming?
After searching to find a place in our basement where James (who is almost 7ft tall) could sit comfortably, we asked them a few questions:
What’s new and different about Unlocked Labs?
Well, first off, have you heard of any cool microbiome companies from Wyoming? Yeah, I thought so. Seriously though, probiotic bacteria have evolved for eons to function optimally. We have a platform that can identify which genes in which probiotic bacteria are precisely required to perform a specific toxin elimination function and then unlock these dormant genes to simply do what they were designed to do. Just like cool start-ups from Wyoming, this insight was hidden in plain sight. We have patents on our platform and will continue to file patents on our new class of probiotics as we reduce each of these to practice. During our time at IndieBio, we came to realize that there are a lot of different “toxins” that cause many chronic conditions, which we can reach through the gut to solve in this very safe manner.
What did you accomplish during the IndieBio program?
We came into IndieBio with a single-product idea built around a research-grade probiotic strain showing preliminary in vitro efficacy. We are leaving IndieBio with a greatly expanded platform concept, two product candidates and several others in the making, two in vivo proof-of-concept experiments already in progress, hard thinking and iterating around our go-to-market, several market experiments underway to test true demand, a way to GMP manufacture commercial-grade products, and a carefully-designed plan for an alpha launch later this year. We have accelerated way beyond where we imagined we could be by now! Most importantly, we’ve also made great new friends, built an amazing network of contacts, and received a ton of exposure to investors who seem quite intrigued by our science, platform and purposeful approach to probiotics.
What’s next for you guys?
After our funding round turns the corner, we will spend the next few months securing the needed inventory for our alpha launch and continuing various product-market-channel fit experiments. We also plan to run several omni-channel experiments including one with health practitioners who are high prescribers of science-based dietary supplements. We already have a community of gout and kidney stone sufferers who can’t wait for us to launch our product. So, that is our real focus – we are looking for investors who will fuel our obsession with getting our products to market so that people with painful conditions can feel empowered to take charge of their health, using science-driven, purposeful probiotics.