Icosavax nabs $51M as syn­thet­ic virus heads to­ward clin­ic

A new biotech is us­ing an ar­ti­fi­cial virus-like par­ti­cle to try to vac­ci­nate against the res­pi­ra­to­ry syn­cy­tial virus (RSV), a flu-like dis­ease for which no vac­ci­na­tion or cure ex­ists.

Icosavax launch­es with a $51 mil­lion Se­ries A fi­nanc­ing from Qim­ing Ven­ture Part­ners USA, Adams Street Part­ners, Sanofi Ven­tures and Nan­oDi­men­sion that will pro­pel it in­to a Phase I tri­al for IVX-121, their new vac­cine for old­er adults.

“The mag­ic of the VLP is that it looks and smells like a virus but it’s safe,” CEO Adam Simp­son told End­points News. “You get all the ben­e­fits of your body giv­ing off the dan­ger sig­nal with­out the down­side.”

RSV will af­fect vir­tu­al­ly all chil­dren be­low the age of 2, ac­cord­ing to the NIH, in­duc­ing a mild cold for most but forc­ing a small per­cent­age to be hos­pi­tal­ized. It can have se­vere con­se­quences in old­er adults, an­nu­al­ly con­tribut­ing to the deaths of 14,000 Amer­i­cans.

Simp­son wants you to pic­ture a soc­cer ball. He wants you to pic­ture it be­cause it’s rough­ly what a virus looks like if you add lit­tle anti­gen prongs to every black tile, and thus its rough­ly what their virus-like par­ti­cle (VLP) looks like.

This par­ti­cle works like a stan­dard virus-based vac­cine, trig­ger­ing the body’s im­mune re­sponse by bind­ing to lym­pho­cyte cells and mak­ing them think the body is in­fect­ed. Simp­son ar­gues this is safer than a con­ven­tion­al vac­cine be­cause it doesn’t in­volve any ac­tu­al for­eign virus.

This VLP, though, is crit­i­cal for RSV for oth­er rea­sons, he said. A vac­cine for the very com­mon virus has elud­ed re­searchers for years in large part be­cause the virus changes form dra­mat­i­cal­ly when it comes in­to con­tact with a cell. The trick, then, was to de­vise a vac­cine that would prime the body’s im­mune sys­tem against the virus’s pre-con­tact form.

The NIH cre­at­ed an anti­gen for that form last year, Simp­son said — pro­vid­ing a prong for Icosavax to at­tach to their VLP.

“What we’ve been able to do is come up with a tech­nique to make this soc­cer-ball-look­ing struc­ture with com­plex anti­gens and ac­tu­al­ly man­u­fac­ture it,” Simp­son said, “And that’s what’s nev­er been done be­fore.”

VLPs are al­ready wide­ly used for vac­cines, in­clud­ing for in­oc­u­la­tion against he­pati­tis B and hu­man pa­pil­lo­mavirus. But Simp­son and the builders of the VLP at the In­sti­tute for Pro­tein De­sign at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton told End­points this presents a ma­jor step for­ward by al­low­ing re­searchers to build them from scratch, us­ing com­pu­ta­tion­al mod­els — tech­niques, they said, that could be used in build­ing vac­cines for oth­er virus­es that have thus far elud­ed re­searchers.

The new mod­el works by mim­ic­k­ing the repet­i­tive struc­ture the body au­to­mat­i­cal­ly as­so­ciates with virus­es, Neil King told End­points.

“The beau­ti­ful thing about the par­ti­cle we’ve de­signed is they’re very ro­bust and ver­sa­tile,” King, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at the In­sti­tute for Pro­tein De­sign said. “You could use the par­ti­cles to make HIV vac­cines or malar­ia vac­cines or flu vac­cines as well as RSV just by swap­ping out dif­fer­ent anti­gens.”

Icosavax will soon be­gin a Phase Ib tri­al on old­er adults, eval­u­at­ing safe­ty and proof-of-con­cept. Simp­son said they will soon look at oth­er in­di­ca­tions but de­clined to name them.

Ven­ture Cap­i­tal as a Strate­gic Part­ner: Fu­el­ing In­no­va­tion be­yond Fi­nance

The average level of investment required for a biotech start-up to succeed is increasing every year, elevating the pressure even further on venture capital to make smart financial investments. Financial investment alone, however, does not always guarantee that exciting innovations can be transformed into real businesses that make a meaningful difference to patients.

Beyond just capital

At Astellas Venture Management (AVM) – a wholly-owned venture capital organization within Astellas, headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area – capital is just one of the ingredients we offer to add value to our biotechnology investments and partnerships. We generally take a strategic investor approach for companies in our invested portfolio, providing access to expertise, technology and/or resources in addition to the injection of finance. An equity investment from AVM can include access to Astellas’ research and development (R&D) capabilities and expertise, and a global network of partner academic institutions and biotechnology companies, to help advance and accelerate the start-up’s innovation.

UP­DAT­ED: Ver­tex joins Mer­ck, Pfiz­er — re­vamp­ing multi­bil­lion-dol­lar tri­al strat­e­gy as biotech R&D crum­bles

You can add Pfizer, Merck and — as we found out Friday morning — Vertex to the growing list of pharma giants hitting the pause button on a range of clinical trials. But not everyone in R&D is getting a red light.

Vertex says that it’s doing its best to keep working its pipeline strategy, coming up with a plan “to enable virtual clinic visits and home delivery of study drug to ensure study continuity and medical monitoring, and to facilitate study procedures.”

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Covid-19 roundup: In­ter­cept, blue­bird and a grow­ing list of biotechs feel the pain as pan­dem­ic man­gles FDA, R&D sched­ules

Around 100 staffers at Boston area hospitals have now tested positive for Covid-19, spotlighting the growing risk that the pandemic will sideline many of the most essential workers in healthcare as caseloads peak in the US and around the globe. With more than 3,400 deaths, Spain has become the latest country to surpass the official death count attributed to the new coronavirus in China, where the outbreak originated. As of Thursday morning, confirmed global cases had crossed 470,000 and the death count eclipsed 21,000.

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Af­ter crit­ics lam­bast­ed Gilead for grab­bing the FDA's spe­cial rare drug sta­tus on remde­sivir, they're giv­ing it back

Two days after Gilead won orphan drug status for remdesivir as a potential treatment for Covid-19, they’re handing it back.

The company was slammed from several sides after Gilead reported that the FDA had come through with the special status, which comes with 7 years of market exclusivity, the waiver of FDA fees and some tax credits as well. Typically, everyone who can get orphan status lands it without much of a fuss, but Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Public Citizen and other consumer groups were outraged.

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Mod­er­na CEO Stéphane Ban­cel out­lines a short path for emer­gency use of a coro­n­avirus vac­cine

NIAID director Anthony Fauci has left no doubts that it takes 12 to 18 months to get a new vaccine tested and in commercial use, in the best of circumstances. But in times of a global emergency — like these — maybe there’s another, faster route to follow.

In an SEC filing on Tuesday, Moderna $MRNA staked out a record-setting pathway to getting their mRNA vaccine into the frontline of the healthcare response as early as this fall. The SEC filing notes that CEO Stéphane Bancel told Goldman Sachs that an emergency use approval could allow the vaccine to go to healthcare workers and certain individuals in a matter of months — presumably provided the NIH sees the safety and efficacy data they would need from the Phase I.

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Caught in a Covid-19 mael­strom, Eli Lil­ly locks down clin­i­cal tri­als as multi­bil­lion-dol­lar R&D ops de­rail

The Covid-19 pandemic has derailed Eli Lilly’s $6 billion R&D operations.

The pharma giant reported Monday morning that it has decided to hit the brakes on most new study starts and pause enrollment for most ongoing studies. Lilly adds that it is continuing dosing for ongoing studies, “but with study-by-study consideration.”

The pandemic has severely disrupted healthcare systems around the globe, says Lilly, making it difficult or impossible to conduct studies at many research sites. And there’s no timeline for when it expects to get back on track.

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As share buy­backs come un­der scruti­ny, what's in store for the bio­phar­ma in­dus­try?

Stock buybacks are not to be permitted for companies that will be bailed out in the coronavirus stimulus package, Congressional leaders have signaled. To what degree the biopharma industry has relied on buybacks for earnings growth in recent years, and if the trend continues, are the big questions as scrutiny into the practice heightens and balance sheets weaken with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on global economies.

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A Sin­ga­pore VC rais­es $200M for a new round, but will Covid-19 pre­vent it from rais­ing the rest?

A top Singaporean biotech venture fund is nearly halfway toward its largest ever fund, but in a sign of what could be in store for VCs amid a global economic freeze, said they could face headwinds raising the other half.

Vickers Venture Partners has secured $200 million out of a targeted $500 million for its 6th fund, first announced in early 2018. They’ve given themselves 13 months to complete the financing, Vickers founder Finian Tan told Deal Street Asia, but the financial frost settling amid the Covid-19 pandemic could slow efforts.

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Strug­gling Unum ex­ecs are ready to con­sid­er a sale, merg­er or any deal that comes its way

Unum $UMRX is working its way through a survival plan of sorts.

After getting hit with a trio of FDA holds in its brief public history and triggering its second pivot to a new lead drug program while laying off 60% of the staff, the troubled penny stock biotech Unum Therapeutics has hatched new plans to secure financial backing while lining up a go-forward strategy for the company.

First, Lincoln Park Capital Fund has agreed to buy up to $25 million of the long-suffering stock, as Unum directs. And the executive team — led by CEO Chuck Wilson — has put everything on the table for consideration: a sale, acquisition, merger, licensing deal, you name it. The ACTR707 program, meanwhile, is being formally wrapped up — their second failed lead program.