A LifeX startup company is taking aim at antibiotic-resistant infections in artificial joints, which have few good treatment options for doctors and consequences for the patient that can be painful and costly.

Oakland-based Peptilogics Inc. has received approval from Australia’s Therapeutics Goods Administration to begin the first in-human study of its PLG0206 product, which targets prosthetic joint infections. The clinical trial received ethics approval from the Bellberry Human Research Ethics Committee.

“Everyone knows someone who’s had one, but I wasn’t aware how devastating the infections could be,” said Peptilogics founder and CEO Jonathan Steckbeck, 42. “There are only a few effective therapies, and none are terribly effective.”

Peptilogics is an early clinical stage biotechnology company and among 10 startups in the LifeX portfolio of 16 companies that are seeking to develop therapeutic agents. LifeX is a nonprofit South Side small business accelerator funded by the University of Pittsburgh.


LifeX Ventures founder and CEO Dietrich Stephan of Squirrel Hill leads a meeting to discuss the progress of several health and wellness companies Wednesday Nov. 28, 2018, at LifeX on the Southside. This University of Pittsburgh-funded nonprofit, aids research groups that hope to produce new medical therapies that aid patients. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)
LifeX startups face especially long odds in attacking some of medicine’s biggest challenges

Six-year-old Peptilogics, which also has an office in San Jose, Calif., does not yet have revenue. The startup has raised $6.8 million from investors, including Peter Thiel, founder of the Founders Fund of San Francisco; Pine-based BlueTree Venture Fund; and serial entrepreneur Stefan Roever, who lives in Bonn, Germany.

The death of his father-in-law in 2004 from a bacterial infection spurred Mr. Steckbeck’s interest in antibiotic-resistant microbes, he said. The company has two full-time employees and 12 contractors.

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Infection of an artificial hip or knee joint can arise any time after surgery, a condition Mr. Steckbeck called “heartbreaking,” and affects 20,000 people annually. The number is expected to rise as joint replacement surgeries increase with an aging population.

More than 1.2 million hip and knee replacements were performed during the year ending in August, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Studies have shown that 1 percent to 2 percent of those operations will result in an infection on the biofilm that forms on the implant.

Physician Neel Shah, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Pittsburgh, said that when a new joint becomes infected, sometimes the only option is to remove the prosthesis, a procedure that has a success rate ranging between 80 percent and 90 percent. Treatment of an infection with the joint in place has a variable overall success rate, between 20 percent and 80 percent.

One choice for treating a joint without removal of the implant is opening the incision and flooding the new joint with an antibiotic solution, a practice that Mr. Steckbeck called a “powerwash.” The procedure often fails, he said, and the cost of treating prosthetic joint infections can reach $100,000.

In a recent experiment, Peptilogics created an infected biofilm on an artificial joint before saturating the implant with commonly used antibiotics, Mr. Steckbeck said. Not all of the bacteria were killed, even after 24 hours of exposure.

But with the Peptilogics product, which is being developed as an injectable drug, essentially all of the bacteria were dead within 30 minutes.

The first Food and Drug Administration-approved trial in humans is anticipated at the end of 2019, Mr. Steckbeck said. If all goes well, the drug could be commercialized for use in the U.S. within a few years, he said.