Merck helps bankroll new partner Themis' game plan to finish the chikungunya race and begin oncolytic virus quest
As Themis gears up for a Phase III trial of its chikungunya vaccine, the Vienna-based biotech has closed out €40 million ($44 million) to foot the clinical and manufacturing bills.
Its heavyweight partners at Merck — which signed a pact around a mysterious “blockbuster indication” last month — jumped into the Series D, led by new investors Farallon Capital and Hadean Ventures. Adjuvant Capital also joined, as did current investors Global Health Investment Fund, aws Gruenderfonds, Omnes Capital, Ventech and Wellington Partners Life Sciences.
Themis had planned to go public on Euronext Amsterdam a year ago but ended up postponing the IPO due to market conditions, leading to the eventual decision to raise a private round, CEO Erich Tauber said.
With data on the chikungunya vaccine, MV-CHIK, expected in the second half of next year, Themis is in talks with regulators around the world about potential approval and any follow-up safety studies. The FDA’s priority review voucher is a strong incentive for targeting US approval first, Tauber said. Themis’ team of 30 — clustered in Vienna with small offices in Boston and Zurich — might also seek help tackling what analysts have called a $500 million to $800 million commercial opportunity, but decisions about partnerships are yet to be made, he added.
Themis is also allocating parts of the new funding to test in Phase I whether its measles virus vaccine vector technology — first licensed from the Institut Pasteur — can treat colorectal cancer.
Its therapy comes in two parts: First patients receive the virus, which itself has cancer killing abilities, but also comes with a gene encoding for an enzyme. That enzyme catalyzes the conversion of an inactive prodrug that patients subsequently take, turning it into a local chemotherapy.
Max Planck investigator Ulrich Lauer came up with the approach and Themis gained access late last year.
They will likely combine this one-two punch approach with checkpoint inhibitors in clinical studies, Tauber said.
Other applications of the measles virus vaccine technology include a slate of infectious disease programs ranging from Zika and Lassa fever to respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), cytomegalovirus (CMV), norovirus and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). But those are funded via public partnerships or grants.
It’s unclear whether Merck is onboard for the more traditional vaccine programs or the immuno-oncology prospects.
“It’s a vote of confidence for us, and we’re also happy that we can use antigens from Merck and test them in our system” is as far as Tauber was willing to go.