Neil King (University of Washington)

Is a 'su­per-sea­son­al' flu vac­cine on the hori­zon? The NIH and UW are tak­ing a shot in­to the clin­ic this April

Sev­er­al biotechs and phar­ma com­pa­nies are look­ing to dis­cov­er a uni­ver­sal flu vac­cine that could pro­tect hu­mans from any strain of the virus, re­gard­less of which is pre­dict­ed to cir­cu­late. But giv­en how many of these ef­forts are like­ly years away at best, are there any in­ter­me­di­ate steps avail­able to bridge that gap?

That’s the ques­tion Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton re­searcher Neil King and a group of NIH sci­en­tists are hop­ing to an­swer. In a new Na­ture pa­per pub­lished Wednes­day, the team was able to demon­strate broad ef­fec­tive­ness in an­i­mal mod­els for a “su­per-sea­son­al” flu vac­cine by dis­play­ing mul­ti­ple flu strains at the same time. And King says it’s start­ing hu­man tri­als at the end of April.

The big idea is in­stead of get­ting dif­fer­ent flu shots every year as the virus mu­tates, one could get pro­tec­tion from one vac­cine for three to five years, King said.

“Even that would be a mas­sive ad­vance,” King told End­points News. “The virus mu­tates a lit­tle bit and you’re still cov­ered. And the next year it mu­tates a lit­tle bit more and you’re still cov­ered.”

The tech­nol­o­gy King used to ac­com­plish this is sim­i­lar to virus-like par­ti­cles, though he says he would not use that term for “very tech­ni­cal rea­sons.” It’s still used in a sim­i­lar fash­ion, how­ev­er, on­ly in­stead of uti­liz­ing a cap­sid that lacks a genome, the group de­signed pro­tein nanopar­ti­cles that can self-as­sem­ble.

Es­sen­tial­ly what you get are two of these nanopar­ti­cles, which sep­a­rate­ly don’t do much. But when you mix them to­geth­er in a test tube, King said, they as­sem­ble them­selves in­to a new mol­e­cule that can func­tion like a VLP. The tech­nol­o­gy is the same that’s be­ing used by Icosavax, though the com­pa­ny was not in­volved in this spe­cif­ic pa­per.

Su­per-sea­son­al flu shots have been at­tempt­ed be­fore, but the un­der­ly­ing twist here is while the in vit­ro as­sem­bly of the nanopar­ti­cles was the same, King and the NIH team man­aged to codis­play mul­ti­ple flu strains on the same nanopar­ti­cle. They man­aged to in­duce broad re­spons­es in mice, fer­rets and non-hu­man pri­mates, hit­ting not just the “head” of the spe­cif­ic strains but al­so the “stem.”

The stem of the virus strain — whose sci­en­tif­ic jar­gon name is hemag­glu­tinin — is what many sci­en­tists have been af­ter for a uni­ver­sal flu shot, King said, as cur­rent flu shots on­ly go for the head. Some ap­proach­es in­volve cut­ting off the head to fo­cus on­ly on the stem, but the nanopar­ti­cle ap­proach man­aged to train the im­mune sys­tem to at­tack both.

“Tra­di­tion­al­ly that’s been very hard. The im­mune sys­tem just doesn’t re­act very strong­ly to the stem,” King said. “But some­thing about putting these hemag­glu­tinins on our nanopar­ti­cles taught the im­mune sys­tem, ‘Hey, give me the head … but al­so go get that stem too.’ And that is what’s pro­vid­ing the pro­tec­tive breadth from these vac­cines.”

On top of that, the group used the same strains cur­rent­ly in com­mer­cial flu shots. That proved a key part in their ef­forts, King said, be­cause it makes a po­ten­tial reg­u­la­to­ry path through the FDA much eas­i­er.

Be­cause their ex­per­i­men­tal vac­cine has al­ready been man­u­fac­tured, the NIH is bar­rel­ing ahead with a Phase I tri­al planned to start next month. By the end of the year, King says the nanopar­ti­cle tech­nol­o­gy will have four vac­cine pro­grams in the clin­ic: the su­per-sea­son­al flu shot, two po­ten­tial Covid-19 vac­cines and a pro­gram for res­pi­ra­to­ry syn­cy­tial virus, or RSV.

But in or­der to ful­ly com­mer­cial­ize the flu shots and take them all the way through piv­otal Phase III stud­ies, King said they still need a phar­ma com­pa­ny to li­cense the pro­gram. There has been ini­tial in­ter­est from at least two com­pa­nies, though King stayed mum on who’s look­ing.

At the end of the day, the su­per-sea­son­al flu shots are still a ways away from their first sales and even longer from re­plac­ing con­ven­tion­al flu vac­cines, which still use tech­nol­o­gy from the 1930s by grow­ing the pre­dict­ed strains in­side chick­en eggs, King said. A tra­di­tion­al time­line pre-Covid-19 might have tak­en 10 years, but now every­thing is up in the air.

“Af­ter what we saw in 2020 with SARS-CoV-2, I don’t know,” King said about a time­line. “It could be faster. But this thing is en­ter­ing Phase I next month, you have to do Phase II, Phase III, these things do take time. So my guess is it would be at least five years, but who re­al­ly knows?”

The Price of Re­lief: Ex­plor­ing So­lu­tions to the Ris­ing Costs of On­col­o­gy Drugs

In 2020, The National Cancer Institute estimated about 1.8 million new cases of cancer diagnosed in the United States, while the costs associated with treatment therapies continued to escalate. Given the current legislative climate on drug pricing, it’s never been more important to look at the evolution of drug pricing globally and control concerns of sustainable and affordable treatments in oncology.

Lat­est news on Pfiz­er's $3B+ JAK1 win; Pacts over M&A at #JPM22; 2021 by the num­bers; Bio­gen's Aduhelm reck­on­ing; The sto­ry of sotro­vimab; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

For those of you who attended #JPM22 in any shape or form, we hope you had a fruitful time. Regardless of how you spent the past hectic week, may your weekend be just what you need it to be.

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A $3B+ peak sales win? Pfiz­er thinks so, as FDA of­fers a tardy green light to its JAK1 drug abroc­i­tinib

Back in the fall of 2020, newly crowned Pfizer chief Albert Bourla confidently put their JAK1 inhibitor abrocitinib at the top of the list of blockbuster drugs in the late-stage pipeline with a $3 billion-plus peak sales estimate.

Since then it’s been subjected to serious criticism for the safety warnings associated with the class, held back by a cautious FDA and questioned when researchers rolled out a top-line boast that their heavyweight contender had beaten the champ in the field of atopic dermatitis — Dupixent — in a head-to-head study.

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Robert Califf, FDA commissioner nominee (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP Images)

Rob Califf ad­vances as Biden's FDA nom­i­nee, with a close com­mit­tee vote

Rob Califf’s second confirmation process as FDA commissioner is already much more difficult than his near unanimous confirmation under the Obama administration.

The Senate Health Committee on Thursday voted 13-8 in favor of advancing Califf’s nomination to a full Senate vote. Several Democrats voted against Califf, including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Maggie Hassan. Several other Democrats who aren’t on the committee, like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, also said Thursday that they would not vote for Califf. Markey, Hassan and Manchin all previously expressed reservations about the prospect of Janet Woodcock as an FDA commissioner nominee too.

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Michel Vounatsos, Biogen CEO (World Economic Forum/Ciaran McCrickard)

Bio­gen vows to fight CM­S' draft cov­er­age de­ci­sion for Aduhelm be­fore April fi­nal­iza­tion

Biogen executives made clear in an investor call Thursday they are not preparing to run a new CMS-approved clinical trial for their controversial Alzheimer’s drug anytime soon.

As requested in a draft national coverage decision from CMS earlier this week, Biogen and other anti-amyloid drugs will need to show “a meaningful improvement in health outcomes” for Alzheimer’s patients in a randomized, placebo-controlled trial to get paid for their drugs, rather than just the reduction in amyloid plaques that won Aduhelm its accelerated approval in June.

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CRO own­er pleads guilty to ob­struct­ing FDA in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­to fal­si­fied clin­i­cal tri­al da­ta

The co-owner of a Florida-based clinical research site pleaded guilty to lying to an FDA investigator during a 2017 inspection, revealing that she falsely portrayed part of a GlaxoSmithKline pediatric asthma study as legitimate, when in fact she knew that certain data had been falsified, the Department of Justice said Wednesday.

Three other employees — Yvelice Villaman Bencosme, Lisett Raventos and Maytee Lledo — previously pleaded guilty and were sentenced in connection with falsifying data associated with the trial at the CRO Unlimited Medical Research.

Susan Galbraith, AstraZeneca EVP, Oncology R&D

Can­cer pow­er­house As­traZeneca rolls the dice on a $75M cash bet on a buzzy up­start in the on­col­o­gy field

After establishing itself in the front ranks of cancer drug developers and marketers, AstraZeneca is putting its scientific shoulder — and a significant amount of cash — behind the wheel of a brash new upstart in the biotech world.

The pharma giant trumpeted news this morning that it is handing over $75 million upfront to ally itself with Scorpion Therapeutics, one of those biotechs that was newly birthed by some top scientific, venture and executive talent and bequeathed with a fortune by way of a bankroll to advance an only hazily explained drug platform. And they are still very much in the discovery and preclinical phase.

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‘Skin­ny la­bels’ on gener­ics can save pa­tients mon­ey, re­search shows, but re­cent court de­ci­sions cloud fu­ture

New research shows how generic drug companies can successfully market a limited number of approved indications for a brand name drug, prior to coming to market for all of the indications. But several recent court decisions have created a layer of uncertainty around these so-called “skinny” labels.

While courts have generally allowed generic manufacturers to use their statutorily permitted skinny-label approvals, last summer, a federal circuit court found that Teva Pharmaceuticals was liable for inducing prescribers and patients to infringe GlaxoSmithKline’s patents through advertising and marketing practices that suggested Teva’s generic, with its skinny label, could be employed for the patented uses.

A patient in Alaska receiving an antibody infusion to prevent Covid hospitalizations in September. All but one of these treatments has been rendered useless by Omicron (Rick Bowmer/AP Images)

How a tiny Swiss lab and two old blood sam­ples cre­at­ed one of the on­ly ef­fec­tive drugs against Omi­cron (and why we have so lit­tle of it)

Exactly a decade before a novel coronavirus broke out in Wuhan, Davide Corti — a newly-minted immunologist with frameless glasses and a quick laugh — walked into a cramped lab on the top floor of an office building two hours outside Zurich. He had only enough money for two technicians and the ceiling was so low in parts that short stature was a job requirement, but Corti believed it’d be enough to test an idea he thought could change medicine.

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