Visterra's engineered antibody passes preclinical test as universal flu treatment

Visterra CEO Brian Pereira

Cambridge, MA-based Visterra has finished assembling its preclinical puzzle for a universal influenza therapy, reviewing how its lead engineered antibody thwarted a pair of lethal viruses--still raising alarms around the world--in a mouse study. And now that the preclinical program is wrapping up, the startup is laying the foundation for a clinical-stage effort which will launch next year.

It's still early days for Visterra, a biotech startup inspired by the work of noted MIT investigator Ram Sasisekharan, who also helped launch Momenta ($MNTA) and Cerulean Pharma. But the biotech believes it's on to something big. Sasisekharan zeroed in on a highly networked cluster of amino acids on the hemagglutinin protein which acts as a kind of grappling hook by the influenza virus to invade cells. Unlike the constantly changing face of a flu virus, though, this target stays steady. And Visterra has been steadily laying out its proof-of-principle data from animal studies to demonstrate that its lead engineered antibody, VIS410, can stymy a cross section of influenza A subtypes.

The data were presented in a late-breaking oral session at the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in Denver.

Provided 410 works the way Visterra expects, newly-named CEO Brian Pereira tells FierceBiotech, it might not only wind up in stockpiles around the globe, it could also be used to protect high-risk medical workers or patients in the event of a pandemic. And the threat of a pandemic lurks constantly.

That prospect helped lure the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to add $13 million to Visterra's Series A last fall.

"We are very encouraged by this data which showed the broad potential of VIS410 to neutralize two of the most dangerous influenza strains with pandemic potential, H5N1 and H7N9. If H5N1 or H7N9 strains evolve to transmit efficiently in humans, effective vaccines may be lacking or delayed for use in a pandemic setting, and VIS410 could be a critical new treatment option," said Donna Ambrosino, the chief medical officer at Visterra. "With these results, VIS410 continues to demonstrate expanded potential across a broad spectrum of influenza A strains, bolstering our plans to develop VIS410 as a novel universal agent to prevent and treat both seasonal and pandemic influenza."

- here's the press release