Genocea, Attracting Merck and Wyeth Vaccine Gurus, Pushes New Immunizations to Clinic

Xconomy Boston — 

Vaccines get the credit for some of the biggest public health gains of the past century, but they are notoriously tough to develop. The required clinical trials take years, cost many millions, and even the slightest safety warning will attract droves of litigators. That’s all for a product that can’t usually command monopoly prices, like, say, a cancer drug.

So why exactly did Cambridge, MA-based Genocea Biosciences raise $23 million in venture capital earlier this year, before it even has a single vaccine candidate showing value in clinical trials? Why would people largely responsible for the two best-selling vaccines ever—Merck’s human papillomavirus vaccine (Gardasil) and Wyeth’s pneumococcal vaccine (Prevnar)—get involved with this startup in its early days? That’s what I delved into with Genocea CEO Staph Bakali when we talked the other day.

There are financial reasons why venture capitalists have suddenly gotten more interested in vaccines like those promised by Genocea, and it isn’t all about impulsive reactions to the latest scary headline on swine flu. Vaccines, which once languished in the pharma industry backwaters, made up a $13 billion market in 2007, according to Lehman Brothers. Sales of vaccines are expected to grow at an 18 percent annual clip through 2011, compared with 4.4 percent projected growth for the drug industry as a whole during that period, according to Lehman. Both Gardasil and Prevnar have proven that vaccines don’t have to be commodities anymore—they can garner high prices and create new billion-dollar markets.

“It’s the fastest growing segment of the pharmaceutical industry,” Bakali says.

Looking through that lens, the work of microbiologist Darren Higgins at Harvard Medical School suddenly appeared to have more than academic interest when the company was started in 2006. Genocea has built its foundation on a technology that’s supposed to mimic the human immune system in a lab dish, which helps researchers identify the most important antigens for inclusion in vaccines, Bakali says. These antigens—substances that spark an immune reaction—are supposed to help the body do more than just stimulate the production of the usual antibodies, or B-cell response, that traditional vaccines are known to provoke.

Staph Bakali

Staph Bakali

Instead, Genocea, with the help of proprietary computer algorithms, is looking for antigens that can stimulate the second major element of the immune system—T-cells—that are widely predicted to be necessary players if researchers hope to develop effective vaccines for major sexually transmitted diseases, or infectious agents like tuberculosis and malaria, Bakali says.

To uncover ways to alert these T-cells, Genocea is drilling deep … Next Page »

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