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Fauna Bio Leverages Nature’s Secrets for Better Human Health

By Rohit Sharma and Priscilla Tyler, April 11, 2019

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Over the course of time, evolution has influenced and driven the symbiotic relationship between species and their environments. This includes a variety of adaptation mechanisms that allow those species to survive extremes in temperature, lack of food, and other environmental challenges. 

The variety of adaptations deployed and perfected over millennia still puzzle and educate us. It is in this untapped area of nature where new insights lie dormant — insights that can potentially vastly improve human health. As our understanding of such mechanisms improves with new and innovative technologies, various behaviors perfected in nature, particularly in the area of hibernation, have significant potential to enable the discovery of new therapeutics.

Fauna Bio Co-founders Dr. Ashley Zehnder, Dr. Linda Goodman, and Dr. Katharine Grabek recognize hibernation behaviors as a critical area to develop. They believe studying comparative genomics, beginning with the science of hibernation, will unearth multiple discoveries that can help us better understand diseases and fuel the creation of innovative strategies for fighting human disease.

“We came at the same problem from very different directions,” said Zehnder, whose background is in veterinary science. For the past nine years, she’s been working at the intersection of human and animal health with a focus on translational findings. Although, she didn’t intend on a career in research; she intended to be a clinical veterinarian.

“The diseases we were treating in a broad array of species were really the same diseases that affect people,” said Zehnder. “But these diseases may present themselves differently in humans.” The idea for Fauna Bio came to be when Zehnder met two other scientists studying adjacent spaces.

“My co-founder Linda (Goodman) realized quite early that the best way to understand human illness is to look at it through this lens of evolutionary biology,” said Zehnder. Prior to co-founding Fauna, Goodman held positions at Harvard University and the Broad Institute where she collaborated on the 200 Mammals Project, an effort to sequence 150 new mammal genomes to identify conserved functional bases in the human genome. Her areas of focus are comparative mammalian genomics, human genomics, and human disease genetics.

“When Katie (Grabek) said she’d join Linda and I, it all came together,” said Zehnder. “She was doing this awesome work with hibernating ground squirrels. It was the perfect use case. They’ve been studied for a large number of years because the biology is so interesting. It’s one of the most extreme animal phenotypes and because of that, they’ve developed exquisite ways to repair and protect their tissue from a number of different insults. This enables them to survive extreme temperatures, low oxygen, lack of food, water, and so forth.”

For more than a decade, Grabek’s research has focused on utilizing proteomic, transcriptomic, and genomic approaches to identify the molecular components underlying the highly dynamic phenotype of hibernation. She’s a well-known powerhouse whose background completes the trifecta of niche expertise Fauna Bio requires.

Fauna Bio Founders

Fauna Bio’s co-founding team: Dr. Katharine Grabek, Dr. Ashley Zehnder, and Dr. Linda Goodman.  

When co-founders tell us how they met, we often hear of seemingly ordinary moments that led to something great. This was the case for Zehnder, Goodman, and Grabek as well. The trio met as postdoctoral scholars at Dr. Carlos Bustamante’s lab at Stanford University where they worked on some of the toughest problems in biological sciences. The Bustamante Lab is one of the most prestigious labs in computational biology, genetics, and evolutionary genomics.

“Carlos (Bustamante) was incredibly supportive of our work, which was a little bit off the grid,” said Zehnder. “We were all at the edge of our fields, and he encouraged us to talk to one another and see if there was something we could do together.” Bustamante is now a part of Fauna Bio’s scientific advisory board.

Zehnder, Goodman, and Grabek could have continued their individual academic careers at any of the top institutions in the country. But they chose to come together and build a company focused on a very difficult yet meaningful challenge instead. Leaving the lab to pursue the creation of Fauna Bio was the only way to weave their different perspectives and individual strands of research into a singular fabric in order to create an impactful product.

“Forming the company gives us an integration hub for data and insights, a platform where we can process it, make discoveries, and work with pharmaceutical partners to identify models that bridge this gap in knowledge and advance the best science in this space,” said Zehnder.

As early-stage investors, recognizing this clear fit among Fauna Bio’s co-founders and their unique suitability for this mission made our investment decision easy. While the company is in its earliest stages, we can already see the resonance of ideas and insights from these three brilliant minds, serendipity of the most special kind. We love the fact that we’re able to help give it a little push toward becoming reality.

“We’re approaching this untapped area of biology that we are uniquely positioned to address,” added Zehnder. “It’s validating that others are seeing the value in what we’re building too.”

Learn more about Fauna Bio in Wall Street Journal