SEEK Group and hVIVO (LON:HVO) have teamed up to create Imutex, a startup with a Phase IIa-ready universal flu vaccine and plans to advance a Zika virus shot into the clinic. The founding companies have invested £14 million ($20 million) and committed technology and resources to get Imutex off the ground.
Imutex will use the resources to progress on two fronts. The most advanced of the two programs is FLU-v, a universal influenza vaccine candidate designed to activate B and T cells by targeting proteins that are common to all flu viruses. The concept of targeting conserved elements of the flu virus is being pursued by other universal vaccine R&D programs, including Israel’s BiondVax Pharmaceuticals ($BVXV), but has yet to result in a commercial product. One difficulty is that the common proteins tend to lie below the surface of the virus, making it harder to access them.
SEEK thinks its approach, which it has licensed to Imutex, can get round this issue. And, having run a Phase Ib trial of the candidate back in 2010, hVIVO sees potential, too. “What we saw is a solid scientific hypothesis in regards to leveraging a T cell response that could have a multivirus approach,” hVIVO CEO Kym Denny told FierceBiotech. “We have a lot of experience in flu and conducting flu clinical trials, … [and] this led us to know that SEEK's product is a really good candidate.”
A major test of this optimism is coming up. Imutex is working with the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to advance the vaccine candidate into a Phase IIa trial that will be run by the service wing of hVIVO. In parallel, Imutex is advancing a Zika virus vaccine into the clinic. “It's very, very early stages, but obviously with the potential emergency fast-track designation it's going to spend more time developing in humans rather than traditional preclinical testing,” Denny said. The plan is to start a first-in-human trial in collaboration with NIAID in the coming months.
Traditionally, hVIVO, a London-based business formerly known as Retroscreen Virology, has supported such work on a contract service basis, but over the past year has become more open to taking on some of the risk. The shift in outlook is the result of getting a look at the rewards such risks can yield. “There was quite a bit of dealmaking over the last three or four years that came off the back of data that came from our platform,” Denny said.
The standout example is Alios BioPharma, which landed a $1.75 billion buyout bid from Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) right around the time hVIVO was locking the database on a trial it ran for the antiviral biotech. HVIVO sees itself as having contributed to the value of Alios. “There were lots of reasons I'm sure J&J invested in Alios, but certainly our data for one of their studies would have been a significant contributing factor to that,” Denny said.
Now, when the next Alios comes to hVIVO asking for contract services, Denny and her colleagues are open to entering into an equity partnership. This attitude led to the creation of Imutex and last year’s investment in PrEP Biopharm, a respiratory infectious disease player that secured £21 million in a Series A round backed by hVIVO and Johnson & Johnson. PrEP posted a preliminary look at the results of a Phase IIa trial this week.