NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – German metagenomics startup CeMeT is hoping to build a reference database from a large gut microbiome volunteer project it recently kicked off , with the goal to conduct biomedical research studies and discover disease-related biomarkers.
CeMeT, which stands for Center for Metagenomics, was founded in 2014 by Tübingen-based genetic diagnostics firm CeGaT and three academic researchers, who are members of the firm's scientific advisory board: Detlef Weigel, a plant researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology; Daniel Huson, a bioinformatician at the University of Tübingen; and Ingo Autenrieth, a microbiologist at University Hospital Tübingen and the University of Tübingen.
The company, which is co-located with CeGaT and currently has three employees, is looking to raise €2 million to €3 million (about $2.3 million to $3.4 million) and is in late-stage negotiations with German venture capital firms and angel investors, Dirk Biskup, a managing director of CeMeT and co-CEO of CeGaT, told GenomeWeb. The funding will be sufficient to finance the company's first large project as well as additional data analysis and marketing activities, he said.
In March, CeMeT launched the Tübiom project, named after its hometown, which aims to analyze the gut microbiomes of 10,000 volunteers in Germany.
To participate in the study, which has been approved by an ethics committee at the University Hospital Tübingen, individuals, who need to be residents of Germany, can request a sampling kit and send in their stool sample, along with a consent form and a questionnaire that asks about their health and lifestyle, including their diet, intestinal or metabolic diseases, allergies, medications, and vaccines.
CeMeT will conduct 16S ribosomal RNA sequencing on each sample to determine its microbial content. For interesting subgroups, it may also perform additional shotgun metagenomic sequencing, Biskup said.
Participants receive their gut microbial profile through a website, where they can compare it to those of others, for example participants suffering from diseases like obesity or diabetes.
Later on, CeMeT plans to match participants' microbial profiles with disease risk profiles published in the literature for certain diseases, such as colorectal cancer. Patients wanting to learn about such risks will need to talk to a medical specialist, Biskup said.
The analysis is free of charge, though the project asks for a voluntary contribution, citing about €70 in analysis costs per sample.
Biskup said that three weeks after the project started in early March, the firm had already signed up 3,000 participants. The focus is now on generating and returning results for the first 1,000 samples, with the first reports expected in early June, and making sure that all elements — including sequencing, database access, reporting, and data comparisons — work equally well as they did in the test environment, he said.
All microbiome and questionnaire data will be kept by CeMeT in a de-identified format to build a reference database, which will be proprietary to the company, although it plans to offer custom analyses.
CeMeT hopes that the reference database will help it understand factors that influence the gut microbiome and how its composition correlates with disease risk, with the aim to develop diagnostic assays or screening tests, for example a screening test for colorectal cancer that might someday replace colonoscopies.
In addition to conducting the Tübiome project, CeMeT offers metagenomic sequencing and data analysis services, including DNA isolation, 16S and microbial shotgun sequencing, and bioinformatic services for single samples or entire projects.
CeMeT is not the only firm looking to exploit the gut microbiome for biomarkers of intestinal disease. Enterome of Paris, for example, set out five years ago to commercialize findings from the Metagenomics of the Human Intestinal Tract or MetaHIT consortium, a large European project. Last month, Enterome raised €14.5 million in a Series C financing round.
Over in the US, uBiome is offering microbiome sequencing and analysis services to individuals, ranging from a "gut kit" for $89 to a "five site kit" for $399 that samples the gut, mouth, nose, genital, and skin microbiome. Like CeMeT, the company provides consumers with their microbial profiles. UBiome, which raised $4.5 million from angel investors in 2014, rose from a crowdfunded research project at the University of California, San Francisco that initially aimed to sequence microbiomes of 1,000 individuals.
Also, the American Gut Project, a crowdfunded research project that was launched in 2012, returns gut microbial profiles to participants for a $99 contribution. It also makes all microbial sequencing and associated health and lifestyle data available to researchers in a de-identified manner at no cost through the European Bioinformatics Institute.