Okairos launches pioneering mid-stage study of promising hep C vaccine

As far as most biotech investors are concerned, the most exciting work being done in the hepatitis C field involves next-gen treatments that can potentially quell the virus without the need for the troublesome interferon in the combo. As one of the hottest Holy Grails in R&D, the prospect of grabbing a big chunk of the multibillion-dollar market has inspired big buyouts and frenzied speculation about winners and losers.

But there's one biotech called Okairos--a spinout from Merck ($MRK)--which is pursuing a promising new approach to create a hep C vaccine. As we reported earlier this year, a small human study produced signs of efficacy, demonstrating the potential of a new vaccine that could use genetic material to spur a strong T-cell response to hep C. The investigators at Switzerland's Okairos built their program around the T-cell responses observed in a small group of people who could naturally block hepatitis C. And today Okairos says it has launched a mid-stage study that has already inspired partnership talks with some of the key players active in the disease.

The plan, says Okairos, is to recruit 350 patients for the NIH-funded study, which will be conducted by co-principal investigators from Johns Hopkins University and the University of California San Francisco. "The history of vaccine research has primarily focused on stimulating antibody responses," notes CSO Alfredo Nicosia. "We've unlocked the door to stimulating robust T-cell responses and will leverage this technology to combat important diseases such as HCV, respiratory syncytial virus and influenza." 

"This could change the landscape quite a bit," Miller Tabak's Les Funtleyder tells Bloomberg. "In theory, if you could vaccinate everyone, you'd need a lot less drug." Funtleyder added this is the only experimental hep C vaccine he has heard of. 

Okairos's game plan isn't restricted to hep C. It's also developing vaccines for malaria, cancer and flu with cash from Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund, Life Sciences Partners, Novartis Venture Funds and Versant Ventures.

- here's the press release
- read the story from Bloomberg