Merck spinout nails promising study on hep C vaccine

A group of European investigators working in league with a small biotech spun out of Merck ($MRK) four years ago has claimed an early-stage success with a small human trial that has generated positive efficacy results for an experimental hepatitis C vaccine. By targeting some of the consistent internal mechanisms found behind the ever-changing façade of the hepatitis C virus, the researchers say that their new vaccine spurred an immune response similar to that seen in people with a strong natural immunity. And they believe that the results warrant further human studies to see how it might fit into future cocktail therapies for the big population of patients.

The spinout, Okairos, was set up to develop genetic vaccines. In this trial, which involved 41 subjects, scientists took cold viruses and adapted them using genetic material taken from the hepatitis C virus. The modified viruses were used to spur an immune response to hepatitis C, and the primary goal of establishing the safety of the therapeutic vaccine was accomplished.

Of course, a small Phase I study is a long, long way from pivotal data. But in a world that's looking for new cocktail approaches to hepatitis C, as well as a jab to guard against new cases, it's a promising start.

"The immune responses we've seen are exciting and we are beginning the next stage of trials," says Oxford University Professor Paul Klenerman. "While we are hopeful, it could be a long road to any vaccine that protects people against hepatitis C."

Hepatitis C has become one of the hottest fields in drug research today. The enormous success of Vertex's ($VRTX) new drug Incivek has fed hopes for future treatments that will dispense with interferon, which is linked to some common side effects which often prevent patients from taking a therapy. And that has encouraged developers who are pursuing new drugs that are likely to be paired in future combinations.

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- here's the Reuters story