First flu vaccine gets millions in funding from Google and others
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Google’s venture capital arm GV has offered funding to a private British company developing a vaccine that would be able to fight all types of influenza (flu).
Vaccitech, a spin-out founded by scientists at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, has raised £20m in total and is preparing to use the money to fund a two-year clinical trial involving more than 2,000 patients and expand other projects.
The company has raised £30m in total since its inception in 2016 and its universal flu vaccine is currently at Phase 2b, which involves determining the short term safety of the drug and how much patients should receive. 862 people are currently enrolled in the first year of a two-year study.
At present, there are currently between three to five million new cases of the illness each year, resulting in 250,000 to 500,000 deaths per annum, mostly among elderly people.
Vaccitech’s universal vaccine can work against all influenza strains, even those spread by birds.
The group is also running clinical studies on an experimental shot to prevent Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and a therapeutic prostate cancer vaccine for use with an immunotherapy drug. Recent advances have made such vaccine-drug combinations a hot area of cancer research.
A so-called universal flu vaccine that elicits immunity against parts of the virus that do not change from year to year is a holy grail of medicine - but so far it has proved elusive.
Current flu vaccines have to be changed each year to match strains of virus circulating at the time. The hope is the new one-size-fits-all vaccine will provide better and longer-lasting protection.
Vaccitech’s new vaccine works by using proteins found in the core of the virus rather than those on its surface. Surface proteins stick out like pins from the virus and change all the time, while those in the core are stable.
It also stimulates T-cells rather than antibodies - an approach that has yet to convince existing flu vaccine manufacturers like Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline and CSL’s Seqirus.
Still, Vaccitech chief executive Tom Evans is confident the big players will come around if the current mid-stage clinical trial is a success and he will not have a problem in finding a partner to take the product into final-stage Phase III tests.
“If we get positive data that shows we can affect rates of hospitalisation and illness with influenza then there is no question in my mind that a partner would take this on,” he said. “This could be a game-changer in a very competitive market.”
The Vaccitech trial marks the first time that a universal flu vaccine has progressed beyond Phase I clinical testing.
If all goes well, Vaccitech’s shot could potentially be ready for launch in 2023, although Evans said 2024 or 2025 might be more realistic. That means financial backers need to take a long view, especially as its other programmes using T-cells to make vaccines against cancer, MERS, hepatitis B and human papillomavirus are also at an early stage.
“We wanted people who were willing to stick with us for a while and had bigger pockets for doing secondary rounds,” Evans said.