Steve Reed sums up his goal for Immune Design, his new vaccine company, in a few bullet points: Better protection, fewer doses, less raw material.
The Seattle-based company got started last month with $18 million in first-round financing from The Column Group, Alta Partners, and Versant Ventures. The idea is to make vaccines loaded with immune-boosters called adjuvants. They’ll be made to stimulate dendritic cells, which are sort of like conductors telling other cells in the immune system which foreign invaders to fight.
I caught up with Reed down the hall from our new Xconomy office, at the Infectious Disease Research Institute (IDRI), the nonprofit institute he founded in 1993 to tackle diseases of the developing world.
Reed isn’t ready yet to reveal Immune Design’s first vaccine candidate. But he said it should be ready for clinical trials within a year. The company has licensed the technology from IDRI, which has already done most of the animal tests and manufacturing work.
Immune Design is licensing potential commercial applications like flu, HIV, hepatitis C, or certain types of cancer. Other uses of the adjuvant more practical for diseases of the developing world, like tuberculosis or malaria, will stay within the nonprofit IDRI. If any of the commercial applications are a hit, Immune Design will plow a royalty stream back into the IDRI.
“It’s a Robin Hood approach,” Reed says.
One example that symbolizes room for improvement is the DPT vaccine, Reed says. Infants in the U.S. have to take the vaccine—short for diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus—in four doses, because it stimulates a generalized immune reaction, not a specific one, against the pathogens in its name. Immune Design would stimulate a more specific defense, using a synthetic adjuvant hitched to an engineered virus or snippet of protein. The result could be a single-shot vaccine. That’s highly useful in the developing world, where it’s difficult to get people to show up for multiple doses, and highly convenient for patients in the United States.
“It really shouldn’t have to be four shots,” Reed says. “There needs to be more innovation there.”
It’s just an example, because DPT is a cheap, relatively effective commodity vaccine that Immune Design isn’t looking to improve upon. The company is busy building up a staff of three into a team of 35 scientists to do the early development work on new vaccine candidates.
Reed is visibly excited about the new-generation adjuvants. No currently marketed vaccine contains this form of synthetic adjuvant. The adjuvant will be combined with an engineered virus, licensed from the Caltech lab of David Baltimore, that efficiently spreads the immune-booster through the body. In other cases, Immune Design may use key snippets of protein to train the immune system to fight without having the potential to actually make people sick, like weakened live-virus vaccines can.
Reed plans to spend 80 percent of his time at the new company, and the rest of his time at the nonprofit institute, where he will continue to oversee grant work sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Steve Davis, the former CEO of Seattle-based digital media company Corbis, has been brought in as interim CEO of IDRI to keep that institute on track.
Immune Design isn’t the only company trying to develop next-generation vaccines, particularly since Merck showed last year it could sell $1.5 billion worth of Gardasil, a $150-per-vial vaccine for cervical cancer, proving that vaccines don’t have to be cheap commodities. Other competitors include Pfizer, the world’s largest drugmaker, VentiRx, a San Diego-based startup company, and VaxInnate of Cranbury, NJ.
Clinical trials for new vaccines need to enroll thousands of patients to demonstrate safety—too costly for any venture-backed startup to do single-handedly. Rather than cut a deal with a pharmaceutical company right away, Immune Design plans to partner with academic labs for early-stage tests to show a vaccine’s value. It’s a departure from Reed’s experience at Corixa, the Seattle biotech company, where the mantra was “partner early, partner often.” Corixa got someone else to pay for its research, Reed says, yet retained slim royalty rights to potentially valuable products.
By waiting longer to sign a deal with a pharmaceutical company, Immune Design shoulders more of the risk in clinical trials, but could stand to get much richer if they pan out. That could bode well for Reed’s “Robin Hood” strategy.
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