Innovation follows the basic principles of chemistry. A successful chemical reaction requires an appropriate balance of reactants. Innovation demands the appropriate mixture of dedication, enthusiasm, and enterprise. Chemical reactions in labs call for skilled scientists who respect the reactants. Innovation necessitates collaborators who boldly harness their strengths to push beyond what is known and make positive change.
Lyseia, a new biotech startup, has pushed beyond what is known about antibiotics and aims to remedy one of the largest global health problems today: multidrug-resistant bacteria. Lyseia’s work is a big deal. Multidrug-resistant bacteria, also referred to as “superbugs,” do not respond to ordinary antibiotics. To date, these menacing bacteria have already infected 2 million people, according to the CDC. Lyseia, founded earlier this year by a team of Stanford students, has developed a therapy method to combat these multidrug-resistant bacteria.
I interviewed the team’s core to learn about who they are, what they are working on, and what makes them so investment worthy.
Lyseia and its current anti-bacterial project grew out of an entrepreneurship program sponsored by Stanford’s ChEM-H institute, which seeks to put chemists, engineers, and biologists in conversation with one another. The program, run by Dr. Chaitan Khosla, brought two teams together in October 2015 to tackle global health issues. The team featuring Christian Choe, Maria Filsinger Interrante, Zachary (“Zach”) Rosenthal, and Catherynn Vuong received a grant from the program to test their drug therapy method and manufacture their bacteria-combatting proteins.
The day-to-day operations core (the individuals interviewed) include Christian, Maria, and Zach. Christian is a Stanford senior studying Chemical Engineering and finishing a Co-terminal Masters in Electrical Engineering. Zach, also a senior, is studying Biological Chemistry. Maria, who graduated Stanford in June, will remain at Stanford to pursue her M.D./Ph.D.
On the daily (or perhaps, I should say the nightly too), Lyseia is manufacturing special proteins that combat “superbugs.” In addition to making the proteins, the team purifies them and then tests their efficacy. The team does not plan on slowing down when school commences in September. Christian, Maria, and Zach, who have experience balancing lab and schoolwork, will continue to work on Lyseia in addition to their regular balance between lab research positions and schoolwork.
“Anti-Bacterial Project 001”
That is the name of Lyseia’s current operation, as quipped by Maria. For the last 10 months, the team has been working on a protein-based approach to target Gram-negative bacteria.
Why are Gram-negative bacteria so important? The team provided me with a straightforward explanation of the issue:
Antibiotics (used to treat bacterial infection) have a lower efficacy in attacking Gram-negative bacteria, as opposed to Gram-positive bacteria (this is because Gram-negative bacteria have a double-layered cell wall, while Gram-positive bacteria has a single-layer cell wall). These spooky Gram-negative bacteria are a bigger threat to humans because they have a lower permeability for antibiotics.
To solve the problem, the team has concocted a magic antibiotic protein that has the ability to breakthrough the cell wall of the Gram-negative bacteria.
Invest in Lyseia… Seriously
Lyseia has already received some early stage help from the ChEM-H program at Stanford but continuing their efforts and expanding their projects requires further support. So, I asked the team, “why should investors invest in Lyseia?”
Maria gave a two-part answer to the question:
- Approach- Lyseia has good science. The protein-based approach is unique and innovative. Most antibiotics take an approach that involves the use of mini-molecules, which is simply not strong enough for the Gram-negative bacteria’s cell wall. Paraphrasing Maria, “if the science is good, then the company will be successful.”
- Mentorship- Growing out of Stanford, Lyseia has virtually unrivaled mentorship as well as access to many resources at Stanford. As a biotech startup, it certainly does not hurt to be a 3 minute walk away from Stanford’s Medical School.
Meanwhile, Christian commented on the advantages of their youthful energy and openness to combine unique approaches.
Finally, Zach emphasized the global importance of Lyseia’s work. Drug-resistant bacteria is a serious and growing problem. The fight against superbugs need to begin sooner rather than later. He says that the typical pharmaceutical company is not pursuing innovative and effective enough ways to beat the “superbug.” There is simply a gap, and Lyseia is seeking to fill it.
Interviewing Christian, Maria, and Zach, was energizing. The team’s genuine excitement for their work was contagious. I was thoroughly impressed by their humility with respect to their incredible achievements and by their gratitude towards their mentors and project supporters, which include Dr. Khosla and other ChEM-H mentors as well as Dr. Marc Deller and the Stanford Macromolecular Structure Knowledge Center.
When asked if they ever imagined that this is what they would be doing, the team expressed how they had medical and scientific interests beforehand but that they could have never predicted that they would be in this current position. Nevertheless, Christian, Maria, and Zach are “certainly glad” (and grateful!) that they are.
Looking forward, the team will continue manufacturing and testing proteins. In a few months, I hope to touch base with the team and see their progress.
Thank you to Christian, Maria, and Zach who took the time to participate in an interview for this feature; it was a pleasure to hear about their exciting new startup. Photo credits: Stanford News Service (Feature Image, L.A. Cicero) and Wikimedia Commons.