Emerging Drug Developer: Immune Design

Immune Design starts recruiting for new research 

Up until a few years ago, vaccine development was in a torpor. 

Margins were slim, the manufacturing process difficult and the upside often hard to make out. 

New technology and a host of buyers around the world anxious to stock up on vaccines changed all that. Just last week we reported that Sanofi-Aventis is looking to invest $6 billion in vaccine production and expects its market in the field to double in eight years. 

Boom times have helped breed a new generation of vaccine development start-ups, and Seattle-based Immune Design believes it can be one of the most successful. The biotech company combines research undertaken by Steven Reed on small molecules and the viral vector work of Nobel laureate David Baltimore in a company that is advancing a new approach to adjuvants and vaccines.  

And as we see in so many biotech start-ups, a venture capital player helped put it all together. 

"The origin was really from the Column Group," says Reed. "Rick Klausner (a partner at Column and the former director of the National Cancer Institute) knew about the work I was doing in adjuvants and put that together with the work that David was doing at Cal Tech," says Reed. He saw that the two technologies worked synergistically, focused around a central theme of targeting and activating dendritic cells to spur a strong immune response. 

Marrying their work in a new company gives Immune Design a shot at creating a platform company with the technology that could generate a more potent immune response. If they're right, they can improve the performance of existing vaccines while developing their own pipeline of new and better vaccines. 

It doesn't hurt that the company is based on impressive academic work. Reed is the founder of the Infectious Disease Research Institute and former CSO of Corixa--so he has experience in both applied and basic research. In addition to Baltimore, the roster of founding scientists includes Dr. Lili Yang of Cal Tech and Dr. Pin Wang of University of Southern California. 

That lineup of talent drew three key venture players to back the company. The Column Group incubated the company and teamed with Alta Partners and Versant Ventures to contribute to the first round of $18 million.  

But don't look for an overnight success story here. Reed's timeline includes three years to get to an IND. To get to that point, Immune Design has to quickly ramp up from a skeletal crew of three to a development company with 30 employees. 

Reed is telling investors that their $18 million will get the company through Phase II on a lead program with preclinical programs advanced to the IND stage. No doubt he's also telling investors more than he's willing to let on to FierceBiotech. The company is concentrating on "viral diseases and other infectious diseases," he allows. And it will be active in HIV and pandemic work, in addition to other disease categories  

"I should emphasize that when we say vaccines, that's broad," notes Reed. "We're really talking about therapeutics. Our first indications in molecules will be vaccines, the viral vector is in therapeutics." 

But the CEO is clearly leery about giving away too much about the company's plans. 

"We're in the process of finalizing licenses," he says by way of explanation. And even with only three staffers on board, Immune Design is already in the earliest stages of partnership talks. After a year in operation, says Reed, you should see deals in place. 

"We really want to be a research-focused company, and these days early-stage clinical trials are included in the research phase." The biotech's focus will stay on research and clinical development, he adds, but not through the approval process. For that, he says, Immune Design will need to partner. 

Emerging Drug Developer: Immune Design