Mymetics Ropes in Dendreon, KPCB Vets to Restart Vaccine Developer

Xconomy San Francisco — 

[Updated: 7:10 am PT] Sometimes little biotech companies hit the wall, and need a jolt from new management, new investors, and even a change of scenery to see if their technology is ever going to pan out. Mymetics is one of those classic biotech stories, of a little vaccine company heading West to reinvent itself.

The Switzerland-based company, which is publicly traded on the over-the-counter exchange where biotechs often go to die, is announcing today it is cleaning house with a new management team, and a new board led by a couple veterans of Seattle-based Dendreon (NASDAQ: DNDN). Mymetics has enlisted Dendreon founder Christopher Henney as its new chairman, and signed up Grant Pickering, a Henney protégé formerly with Dendreon and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, as the new CEO. Four members of the company’s existing board have resigned, and plans are in motion to move the company to either San Francisco or Seattle, and raise new money to develop a lead vaccine candidate for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Mymetics has a head-spinning corporate history, which I won’t belabor here, other than to say it has burned through 49 million euros since being incorporated in 1994, it has no vaccines on the market, and it had only 382,000 euros left heading into this year (about $500,000). Its biggest investor is from an entity I’ve never heard of, on Guernsey, an island in the English Channel. It does have big-name scientific advisors from the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard Medical School, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

More importantly, what attracted Pickering and Henney, are virosomal vaccine technologies to trigger the body to produce protective antibodies in the mucosal membranes that represent the body’s first line of immune defense. The initial plan is to test this technology against one of the most lucrative, and competitive, vaccine opportunities in the world—respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). There’s no current vaccine for this infection that hits almost all children by their second birthday and ends up hospitalizing as many as one in 50 kids, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

Essentially, Pickering and Henney are betting that this little company with eight full-time employees, and a stock price of 6 cents, could become something big with the right leadership, and money behind it.

Grant Pickering, CEO of Mymetics

“Chris [Henney] and I aren’t going to toil in the backwaters of the business world. We have big plans,” Pickering says. “We want to build a great company, and there’s a real void in the mid-cap space for new vaccine companies.”

Henney, 71, the co-founder of Immunex, Icos and Dendreon, says he became interested in Mymetics after being introduced to it by a New York investor. Despite the lack of a NASDAQ listing, and the lack of cash, he liked the science. “It was purely a scientific decision,” Henney says. “I knew of the [virosomal] technology in a general sense. But everybody I talked to thought this was the best rendition of that technology.” What it needed, he says, was a veteran vaccine executive like Pickering who could provide new direction, raise more money, and keep some of the key scientific members of the team on board.

Pickering, 44, settled on this new venture last month, after spending the previous 14 months as an executive-in-residence at Kleiner Perkins, where he looked over a wide variety of investment opportunities for drugs, vaccines, and even health IT companies.

The big technology idea at Mymetics comes from Toon Stegmann, a former director of vaccine research at Netherlands-based Crucell, which was acquired by Johnson & Johnson last year for $2.4 billion. Stegmann’s work is in the field of virosome-based vaccines, which essentially utilizes components of a viral membrane to make vaccines. By extracting the infectious RNA from a virus, and combining the viral membrane components with an immune-boosting compound called an adjuvant, researchers hope that virosomal vaccines can spark efficient immune reactions against specific invaders. The approach is thought to have advantages over the traditional whole-killed, or live-attenuated vaccines, in which viruses are killed and injected, or weakened and injected, to help the immune system recognize invaders that need to be attacked.

The approach isn’t entirely new, as there are two commercial flu vaccines that are made through virsomal means, and another vaccine for hepatitis A, Pickering says.

What Mymetics has that’s different, he says, is … Next Page »

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