Genocea Teams With Nonprofit PATH on Vaccine for Children in Developing World

Genocea Biosciences is aiming to upstage the best-selling vaccine ever. The Cambridge, MA-based biotech startup, through funding from Seattle-based PATH, a nonprofit that supports global health technologies, has started pursuing a next-generation pneumococcus vaccine that may offer broader protection to infants in the developing world than Prevnar, a vaccine made by drug giant Wyeth, and do it at a fraction of the price.

Prevnar has become a runaway success in the U.S. and other wealthy countries, generating $2.4 billion in worldwide sales in 2007. It works by building up infants’ immune defenses against pneumococcal bacteria, which can cause deadly pneumonia and meningitis infections. Yet like a lot of health innovations, the benefits aren’t spread evenly. The vaccine costs health agencies $66 a dose in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control. Even though Wyeth says the vaccine is available in 86 countries, an estimated 2 million children worldwide still die of pneumonia every year, with most cases caused by the pneumococcal bacteria.

PATH, through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, committed $1 million in May to Genocea for a three-year program to discover new antigens, substances that trigger an immune response, that could be incorporated into a new vaccine, says Eileen Quinn, a PATH spokeswoman. Richard Malley of Children’s Hospital Boston is also part of the team. Part of the problem they’ll face is that Prevnar is designed to be effective against only seven of the 80 different types of pneumococcus bacteria, the most common types in the U.S., leaving plenty of room for broader coverage, Quinn says. The long-term goal on price, so developing countries can buy it on their own, on a sustainable basis? About $3.50 a dose, she says.

“The goal here is to save lives,” Quinn says. “For vaccines to ultimately make a difference, they need to be at or below that price, and offer expanded protection.”

The alliance with Genocea is part of a broader strategy by PATH and GAVI, formerly known as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, to get more vaccines used in the developing world, Quinn says. On pneumococcal vaccines, PATH is also supporting work by Intercell, a biotech in Vienna, Austria, that’s working on what is known as a common-protein vaccine, or sub-unit protein found in multiple types of pneumococcal bacteria and can alert the immune system. Such a vaccine could be cheaper and easier to manufacture than Prevnar, Quinn says.

Genocea’s co-founder and president, Robert Paull, couldn’t be reached yesterday, although he said in a statement last month that “Genocea believes it is important to address both the needs of the developed world and geographies where poverty, socio-economic challenges and disease prevalence require public/private partnerships to bring innovative approaches to help those most in need.”

Some of the people at Genocea have first-hand experience with the struggle to get vaccines into the developing world. George Siber, the company’s executive chairman, previously was chief scientific officer of Wyeth’s vaccines division, where he oversaw development of multiple childhood vaccines, including Prevnar. Abel Mahmoud, the former president of Merck Vaccines, is also on Genocea’s scientific advisory board. We’ll see in a few years if their experience and contacts can help usher in the cheap and effective pneumococcus vaccine that PATH and the Gates Foundation want to see.

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