Ever since 2004, when the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) started a program called Industry Discovery and Development Partnership, it has awarded $75 million to 32 companies that are developing entirely new approaches to combating Type 1 diabetes. Today, the New York-based foundation announced the newest recipient of funding and research support under that program: Selecta Biosciences, a Watertown, MA-based vaccine developer founded by MIT professor and prolific entrepreneur Bob Langer.
Neither the JDRF nor Selecta would reveal the financial details of the deal, but ultimately the money may be less important to Selecta than the prestige and knowledge the foundation brings to the project. “The JDRF is a worldwide leader in research on Type 1 diabetes,” says Selecta CEO Werner Cautreels. “Their scientific board sets the global agenda for diabetes research, and they have access to a lot of expertise.”
Selecta, which has raised more than $30 million since it was founded in 2008, is developing vaccines that are made of polymer nanoparticles. They are “antigen-specific tolerogenic vaccines”—meaning they stop the autoimmune response that causes disease without damaging cells that keep people’s immune defenses intact. Under the terms of the research partnership, the JDRF will award financial support to Selecta based on research milestones it hits as it applies the technology to Type 1 diabetes, which occurs when the body’s immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. The diabetes program is currently in the early stages of discovery. Cautreels says that the company’s goal is to reach proof-of-principle within a year, and then pick the best drug candidates for clinical trials.
Young biotech companies often seek out charitable organizations for funding—but in this case, the opposite occurred. Richard Insel, chief scientific officer of JDRF, says his staff reached out to Selecta last year, because they believed the company’s vaccine platform might offer a new way to attack diabetes. “To cure Type 1 diabetes, as well as to prevent it, will require adjusting the underlying immune response,” Insel says. “We’re focused on the idea of re-educating the immune system, and we thought this technology could be directed towards that.”
The goal of the research collaboration is to find a vaccine that can be given to patients in the early stages of the disease—ideally to prevent them from becoming dependent on insulin, Insel says. But the vaccine might be useful as a companion therapy, too. For example, it’s possible it could protect beta cells that are transplanted into patients as a potential cure for the disease. “Those new cells are often destroyed by the immune system,” Cautreels explains. “The vaccine might give them a higher chance of success.”
And JDRF could offer Selecta a higher chance of succeeding with regulatory agencies, potential funding partners, and ultimately patients. Insel points out that several research projects funded by the Industry Discovery and Development Partnership have already been picked up by large pharma or biotech companies. Among them: San Mateo, CA-based Bayhill Therapeutics, which licensed its diabetes program to Genentech in 2009. “If we can take on the risk early on, and then someone with deeper pockets comes in, that’s a success,” Insel says.
The JDRF has also helped startups by educating the FDA about new therapeutic options for diabetes, and advocating on behalf of patients for new products. “It’s not just about discovery,” Insel says. “It’s about making sure these products are approved in a timely manner.”
The JDRF’s support for Selecta’s diabetes program will help the company devote its venture dollars to other projects that are further along in the research process, including a smoking-cessation vaccine. The molecule, called SEL-068, is an antibody against nicotine. The nanoparticles in the vaccine essentially trap the nicotine, so it can’t reach the dopamine-releasing receptors in the brain that cause people to become addicted to cigarettes. “Four out of five smokers who quit relapse,” Cautreels says. “We believe this vaccine, together with counseling, will prevent relapse.” Selecta plans to begin clinical trials later this year.
Cautreels believes the Selecta’s vaccine technology will ultimately have broad appeal. The nanoparticles, he explains, stay intact until they reach the lymph nodes—the centerpoint of the immune system. “They only act where they need to act,” he says, which could reduce the potential for side effects. Plus the particles are synthetic, which means they can be easily manufactured on a mass scale, he adds.
In conjunction with the JDRF announcement, Selecta also said it would add a new vice president of business development, Peter Keller, who will be charged with finding partners to advance the company’s product candidates. “As we go into the clinic, we thought it would be the right time to start positioning the company for deals,” says Cautreels, who worked with Keller at Solvay Pharmaceuticals before it was bought by Abbott in 2010.
Selecta is studying the potential of its technology in cancer, flu, allergy, and other therapeutic areas. The cash the company has raised will take it through the middle of next year, Cautreels says, after which he hopes to have some business-development partners on board. Raising more venture capital is also an option, he says. And he believes the company’s mission will attract other big-name supporters that are in the same league as the JDRF. “Using the immune system to treat disease,” he predicts, “will be the wave of the future.”
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