Affinivax banks $120M to push vaccines against hospital-associated superbugs

Affinivax, the company looking to unseat the world’s best-selling vaccine, has reeled in $120 million to advance its pipeline. But with its lead program—a Prevnar 13 challenger that covers 24 strains of pneumococcus—fully financed by a partnership with Astellas, where will it deploy the cash?

“We’ll take that $120 million and fund additional vaccines—we’re not stopping at 24, even though 24 already beats Prevnar 20,” Affinivax CEO Steve Brugger told FierceBiotech, referring to Pfizer’s in-development Prevnar 13 follow-up. “We will use our funds to create one that covers even more strains than 24.”

The company will also push a set of vaccines for hospital-associated infections into the clinic, Brugger added. With the rise of drug-resistant bugs and “not a lot of antibiotics in the toolbox,” preventive vaccines against these bacteria are a no-brainer. But of those who have tried to develop vaccines against bacteria such as Clostridium difficile and Escherichia coli, many have failed, partly because of the limitations of traditional conjugate vaccines. Pfizer itself ditched a Staphylococcus aureus vaccine after a phase 2b study showed no promise.

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Conjugate vaccines use proteins to carry polysaccharides that provoke an immune response. Affinivax’s pipeline is based on Multiple Antigen Presenting System (MAPS), which allows the protein itself to induce an immune response, too.

In addition to covering more strains in one vaccine, in the case of Affinivax’s pneumococcus jab, the tech could allow the company to pick its antigen—polysaccharide or protein—depending on the bacteria it’s targeting.  

“We believe MAPS can do it because of this one-two punch. We can use polysaccharides, or proteins, or both, to tackle each bacterium,” Brugger said.

The series B, drawn from Viking Global Investors, Bain Capital Life Sciences and Ziff Capital, is the first time Affinivax has tapped venture capital. Founded in 2014 with tech out of Boston Children’s Hospital, the company picked up its seed and series A financing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2017, it bagged another $10 million upfront when it licensed its lead program to Astellas, which will develop and commercialize the vaccine.

As Affinivax plugs away at its in-house pneumococcus efforts as well as a suite of programs targeting multiple hospital-associated infections, it is also doing early-stage work in cancer and exploring the use of its technology against viruses, including the new coronavirus behind the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the midst of COVID-19, we started an early program and then realized how crowded the space is. But it was the right thing to do,” Brugger said. That said, Affinivax’s “bread and butter will be focused on creating a completely new standard of preventive care for bacterial infections extending beyond pneumococcus.”