Oakland startup wants to battle the invasion of the superbugs
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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
6:30 AM DEC 18, 2017
The conversation went something like this a couple years back when Jonathan Steckbeck met Dietrich Stephan at a Tuesday morning networking event:

“We think we have the cure for the looming superbug epidemic,” Mr. Stephan recalled the 41-year-old entrepreneur saying. “I said, ‘Oh, really. Send us all your stuff.’”

The introduction paid off. Mr. Steckbeck’s company, Oakland-based Peptilogics Inc., recently closed on a $5.5 million Series A financing round led by Facebook Inc.’s first major investor Peter Thiel. Mr. Stephan, a serial entrepreneur and chair of the department of human genetics at the University of Pittsburgh, has become Peptilogics chairman.

Moreover, Peptilogics is among 10 startup companies that will have work space in Pitt’s new business accelerator that is planned for the Strip District — all things that happened after a chance meeting over coffee.

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Peptilogics, which now employs 15 people, is preparing for clinical trials of its first product by mid-2018, a medicine to treat the toughest infections. Marketing of its first product will hinge on how well the clinical trials go.

“The company is developing a set of products — new antibiotics — that work in a way that no other antibiotics work,” Mr. Stephan said. “They kill every type of bacteria we have exposed our products to. This is a looming global epidemic and we feel like we’ve got the answer to that, and I think the market agrees.”

A World Health Organization report in September identified 51 new biologicals and antibiotics in clinical development to treat priority antibiotic-resistant organisms, but only eight of those were classed by WHO as innovative treatments that will add value to current treatments.

“Antimicrobial resistance is a global health emergency that will severely jeopardize progress in modern medicine,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a prepared statement.

Peptilogics’ secret, licensed from the University of Pittsburgh, kills bacteria by creating weak spots in cell membranes, leading to cell death. That’s a shift from having to get inside the cell to disrupt the inner workings, which is how antibiotics have worked for decades.

The 5-year-old company, which also has an office in San Jose, does not yet have revenue.

Mr. Steckbeck, a native of Lebanon, Pa., and Peptilogics president and chief scientific officer, received an MBA as well as an PhD in biochemistry, at Pitt. He became interested in how amino acid chains, called peptides, interact with membranes during his doctoral work, then focused on how peptides can be harnessed to weaken bacteria cell membrane as a post-doc.

Mr. Steckbeck also was deeply affected by the death of his father-in-law 13 years ago from a bacterial infection despite care in “one of the best hospitals in the world.”

“Unless you have a very clear, personal demonstration, you understand on a theoretical level that these things are possible,” he said. “At that point, in 2004, it wasn’t theoretical any more.”

Peptilogics’ target is bacteria that inevitably find ways to resist antibiotics and cause life threatening diseases.

More than 2 million people are sickened each year by antibiotic resistant infections, resulting in at least 23,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Antibiotics are among the most commonly prescribed medications, but up to half of the prescriptions are not needed or effective — setting the stage for drug resistance.

Among the organisms that Peptilogics’ first product will target are so-called Gram-negative bacteria. Pneumonia and bloodstream infections are among the problems caused by the bacteria.

New drug development can be a costly venture. Not so long ago, pharma startups needed a partner, a much larger drugmaker, for example, to bring a new medicine to market.

But Peptilogics has held down overhead and operating costs and may not need big capital infusions to see the company through its early stages, including proof-of-concept clinical trials, said 50-year-old Sanjay Kakkar, a physician and entrepreneur and Peptilogics CEO. “We are very well positioned in the early- to mid-stages as an independent company.”

Kris B. Mamula: kmamula@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699