New Medicines from Evolutionary Pathways: Using Comparative Genomics to Treat Human Disease | TPM podcast #33
Welcome to Talking Precision Medicine (TPM podcast) — the podcast in which we discuss the future of healthcare and health technology, and how advances in data and data science are fueling the next industrial revolution.
Our guest today is Dr. Ashley Zehnder, co-founder and CEO of Fauna Bio. Fauna is a revolutionary young biotech company using comparative genomics of an array of non-traditional mammalian models to discover new therapeutic opportunities for people. What do ground squirrels have to do with treating battlefield trauma? Only one way to find out …
Come on in and have a listen.
Ashley Zehnder’s Background:
- Ashley Zehnder, co-founder and CEO of Fauna Bio, is a former veterinarian specializing in exotic animal medicine who pursued a PhD in cancer biology at Stanford University, focusing on cross-species cancer development.
“I had been treating patients with all kinds of different forms of cancer with the oncology group at Davis. And we’ve been seeing that there were just differences in how tumors behaved across species. Certain species tended to get certain kinds of tumors, and others didn’t. We saw some species that we almost never saw with cancer. We almost never treated chinchillas with cancer, compared to say, rabbits, who always had different kinds of cancer. So I really wanted to dig into that difference.”
Founding of Fauna Bio:
- Fauna Bio was co-founded by Zehnder and colleagues Katie Grabek and Linda Goodman, fellow PhDs, who have backgrounds in human genetics, with the goal of leveraging genes shared across species to combat diseases.
“We all came to Fauna from a place of frustration, and seeing that there was an opportunity to start to work with this data in a way that would really start to make an impact on human health. But saying that it was very unlikely that anybody else would take this and run with it. So it very much felt like ‘if we don’t do it, nobody else will’ kind of situation.”
Exploiting Opportunities in Comparative Genomics:
- The company’s unique approach involves exploring genes evolved in extreme environments to unlock insights for human therapeutics.
“I had noticed that there was a big disconnect in the clinicians who really understood how these diseases presented across different species, and the biomedical researchers who understood the molecular mechanisms in those diseases. Often those researchers working more in the molecular mechanisms were looking at either human disease, or usually just mouse and rodent models of cancers and not looking at how those cancers naturally presented across different species. So there wasn’t a lot of cross talk there.”
Diverse Biomedical Exploration and Sample Challenges:
- Fauna Bio collaborates with the Zoonomia Consortium to analyze genomic data of over a hundred mammals, revealing adaptations and potential therapeutic insights.
- The research focuses on mammals displaying unique adaptations, such as the 13-lined ground squirrel’s ability to combat various pathologies during hibernation.
- Fauna Bio’s innovative approach targets genes identified in hibernating species, develops preclinical therapeutic candidates, and investigates genes related to DNA repair for potential longevity benefits.
- In a collaboration with University of Florida, they are delving into the remarkable regenerative abilities of species like spiny mice, which can heal without scarring in various tissues.
- Obtaining samples from certain species presents challenges due to endangerment or infectious diseases, prompting Fauna Bio to focus on species where obtaining samples is feasible in the short term.
Innovative Approaches to Target Discovery and Collaboration:
- Fauna Bio seizes the opportunity presented by cost-effective access to high-quality genomes and advanced technologies like RNA sequencing and proteomics.
- Their target discovery process encompasses identifying a gene signature and mapping it to a library of molecules, with collaboration from medicinal chemistry experts for compound development.
- Fauna Bio offers exclusive datasets to pharmaceutical companies for collaborative target discovery, operating under both independent and partnership models.
Cultivating company culture:
- Zehnder underscores the significance of nurturing a strong company culture, which was established early on with intentional efforts, even when the team was small.
- This commitment to culture has endured and flourished as the team expanded, with core values emphasizing high-quality science, impactful work for humanity, and collaborative teamwork.
This has been Talking Precision Medicine. Please share our podcast with your colleagues, leave a comment or review, and stay tuned for the next episode. Until then you can explore our TPM podcast archive and listen to interesting guests from our past conversations.