A San Francisco-based biotech company has acquired vaccine research by Oregon Health & Science University scientists, marking a critical step toward commercialization of a promising HIV vaccine.
The deal involves the startup Vir Biotechnology Inc. buying TomegaVax Inc., an OHSU spinoff that holds the rights to the vaccine technology developed by Dr. Louis Picker and Klaus Frueh at OHSU’s Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute in Beaverton.
“This is what we’ve worked for for many years,” Picker said.
OHSU will become a shareholder in Vir, Brendan Rauw, vice president for technology transfer, said in an email. The university will also get royalties and other payments for products based on OHSU’s technology.
Picker’s team developed a vaccine in testing on monkeys, using it as a vehicle to fight HIV.
It’s been shown to not only fight off infection but also to clear a virulent version of HIV from nearly 60 percent of the primates. No other HIV vaccine has had that sort of success in monkeys, Picker said.
“There isn’t very much else out there that has this potential,” he said.
The platform isn’t limited to fighting HIV. Picker is working on it to battle tuberculosis and says it could be effective against hepatitis B, malaria and papillomavirus.
“There’s also the potential for using this technology for cancer,” Picker said.
The property rights to the platform have been owned by TomegaVax, which OHSU created in 2011 to eventually get Picker’s technology commercialized. Scientists at academic research centers like OHSU develop promising vaccines in their labs but companies are needed to get technologies licensed by the federal government and put on the marketplace for public use.
There are many types of vaccines. OHSU’s is unique, Picker said, because it relies on a herpes virus to train the immune system to fight pathogens. He’s using cytomegalovirus, a common herpes virus that infects nearly everyone in the developing world.
It rarely causes symptoms or disease but has the unusual characteristic of firing up the immune system’s storm troopers, killer T cells, by putting them on constant patrol.
By equipping the platform with bits from HIV or other pathogens, the scientists train the immune system to fight back.
Picker has yet to prove that the vaccine platform is safe for humans. He will conduct the first safety trials of the vaccine in Portland next year. But he said it hasn’t harmed monkeys and is confident it won’t hurt humans either. The scientists have diminished the virus’ ability to cause disease 10,000-fold.
“The real risk is whether it’s going to work or not,” Picker said.
Picker has been shopping his technology around for at least two years when he first approached venture capitalist Robert Nelson. Nelson founded Vir earlier this month.
According to a news release, the company will be focused on developing cures, treatments and prevention for infectious diseases that have non-existent or inadequate solutions.
The company also has backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has donated $25 million to Picker’s research. The foundation is also paying for the manufacture of the vaccine that will be used in the safety trials next year.
If the vaccine doesn’t produce harmful side effects, it will move to the next stage, which involves showing how effective it is. It takes years and costs millions of dollars to get a vaccine or any drug to market.
Author: Lynne Terry