Stealthy Vir allies with Alnylam and others to build infectious disease pipeline

George Scangos
Ex-Biogen CEO George Scangos signed on last year to head up Vir and its deep pipeline of drugs to treat infectious diseases.

When Vir Biotechnology launched in California in January 2017, it didn’t say much about what was in its pipeline—but it picked up plenty of buzz anyway, thanks to the big names involved in the company. George Scangos, who had recently stepped down as CEO of Biogen, signed on to head the new company. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and ARCH Venture Partners kicked in $150 million in startup capital.

Now, 2017 Fierce 15 winner Vir is emerging from the shadows and outlining the details of its pipeline, which is focused on infectious disease. And true to form, the company has signed on more big names in biotech to allow Vir to become "a major company in the treatment of infectious disease," Scangos told FierceBiotech. 

Today, Vir announced collaborations with RNAi biotech Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, another Fierce 15 alumnus, and infectious disease company Visterra, as well as four academic research labs, including groups at Stanford and Harvard.

The alliances are focused on three key areas: infectious diseases including HIV, respiratory illnesses such respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and infections acquired in health facilities like hospital-acquired flu. In addition to the research deals, Vir has also acquired Humabs BioMed, a Swiss company that’s developing more than 15 antibodies to treat diseases ranging from Zika to hepatitis B.

RELATED: FierceBiotech’s Fierce15 – Vir Biotechnology

Vir also announced that its total funding now exceeds $500 million and includes contributions from its initial investors, as well as a slate of new supporters. They include SoftBank Vision Fund (which recently led a $1.1 billion into Vivek Ramaswamy’s Roivant Sciences), the Alaska Permanent Fund and private and institutional investors.

The biotech industry has charted plenty of advances in fighting infectious diseases over the last few years—Gilead’s Sovaldi and other cures for hepatitis C among them—but there is still more work to be done, Scangos says. Vir hopes to bring new technologies for fighting diseases with few good treatments from the laboratory into clinical development rapidly, he explains. "Treatments for HIV and hepatitis C have been triumphs, but there have been very few breakthroughs outside of those two," Scangos said. "We are taking multiple compounds forward in parallel and pursuing different modalities." 

The Alnylam partnership is a key part of that strategy, Scangos said. Under the agreement, the two companies will develop up to five siRNA compounds, including ALN-HBV02 to treat hepatitis B. Alnylam will retain the option to participate in the commercialization of the treatment, which is currently in phase 1 trials. Scangos believes the Alnylam approach could be the key to beating back hepatitis B, which is challenging because the virus makes large levels of "pseudo" virus particles that are difficult to eliminate. "Alnylam's siRNA molecule knocks down the expression of those viral particles by orders of magnitude," Scangos said.

Alnylam CEO John Maraganore said in a statement that partnering with Vir gives his company an opportunity to work with researchers who are completely focused on infectious diseases. Alnylam has been focused lately on developing its most advanced RNAi product, patisiran to treat hereditary ATTR amyloidosis. The drug recently scored positive phase 3 results, and Alnylam is preparing for an FDA submission. It is also rapidly advancing a program aimed at a group of rare diseases called porphyria.

RELATED: Alnylam’s patisiran hits all endpoints in critical phase 3

As for Vir’s partnership with Visterra, it covers the development of six antibodies, including the option to acquire part of the phase 2b compound VIS410 to treat influenza A in hospital patients. Topline results from that trial should be available in early 2018, Visterra said in a separate announcement.

The deal is a major boon to Visterra, which will be eligible for up to $1 billion in milestone payments, royalties and revenues, the company estimates. In addition to VIS410, the alliance covers treatments for RSV and severe fungal infections. Three of the antibodies that the two companies will develop together emerged from Visterra’s Hierotope platform, a technology the company uses to target pathogens that have traditionally been difficult to conquer because they frequently mutate or they have structural characteristics that make them particularly resistant to drugs.

RELATED: Visterra adds $24M to series C to take flu drug to phase 2b

The acquisition of Humabs follows Vir’s purchase of TomegaVax, a company that was spun out of Oregon Health & Science University and has a portfolio of viral vectors. Humabs and Visterra are complementary, Scangos said. Humabs specializes in isolating fully human antibodies and assessing them for both their binding ability and their functional characteristics. "Visterra takes a computation approach to identifying epitopes that they believe are less likely to mutate to resistant forms, and then engineering antibodies that recognize those epitopes," he said.

Vir is also pursuing cell therapy, announcing a research agreement with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center today. Vir won't be pursuing cancer treatments like the much-heralded CAR-T therapies that have come to the forefront recently, Scangos said, but he believes the technology behind those advances could prove useful in fighting infectious diseases. "Immuno-oncology is about directing the immune system to attack cancer. We could use the same approach to attack cells harboring viruses," he said.

Vir expects to move several of its experimental treatments into clinical testing within the next 18 months. "We have the resources to take reasonable risks," Scangos said, "and we want partners with the highest quality science."