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Genocea Snags $30M from Gates Foundation, VCs for New Vaccines

Genocea Biosciences, one of the big ideas for new vaccines in Boston biotech, just got another $30 million boost from a group of investors that includes the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Cambridge, MA-based Genocea said today it raised its Series C investment round from the Gates Foundation, CVF, and all of its existing investors, including Polaris Venture Partners, Lux Capital, GlaxoSmithKline’s SR One venture arm, Johnson & Johnson Development Corporation, Skyline Ventures, Cycad Group, Auriga Partners, MP Healthcare Ventures and Morningside. The company, which raised its Series A round in February 2009, has now pulled in a grand total of $76 million in financing through its history.

Genocea, a spinoff from Darren Higgins’s lab at Harvard Medical School, has built a technology that’s supposed to mimic the human immune system in a lab dish, which helps researchers identify the most important antigens for inclusion in vaccines. These antigens—substances that spark an immune reaction—are supposed to help stimulate T cells of the immune system to fight a specific foreign invader. The hope is that T cells will to add more punch to the usual B-cell based immune response that traditional vaccines are known to provoke.

One problem is that traditional vaccines that prevent infections are notoriously difficult for biotech startups to develop, because of the big, expensive, and long-term clinical trials that are required to demonstrate safety and effectiveness. So Genocea has sought to diversify its pipeline by making vaccines that treat disease, not just prevent it. One of those candidates is GEN-003, a vaccine for Herpes Simplex Virus 2, aka genital herpes, that is supposed to reduce the frequency and severity of clinical outbreaks of the disease, the company said. That product is currently in an early-to-mid stage clinical trial.

A second Genocea vaccine candidate, GEN-004, is in animal testing for all the known strains of pneumococcal infections. Those infections are a leading cause of disease among infants worldwide, and it has proven to be a lucrative business opportunity, as Pfizer’s pneumococcal vaccine (Prevnar) has become a billion-dollar blockbuster even though it doesn’t protect against all the strains of pneumococcal infections.

“We have made strong progress in our effort to create a new class of vaccines capable of combating serious infectious diseases that current vaccine discovery technologies cannot address,” said Chip Clark, chief executive officer at Genocea, in a statement.

The Gates Foundation has traditionally supported vaccine work in academia, and occasionally in companies, through project-based grants, but it has recently sought to get more deeply involved as an equity investor in biotech companies aligned with its global health mission. Trevor Mundel, the foundation’s president of Global Health, has spent much of his career in the pharmaceutical industry, most recently at Switzerland-based Novartis, and has been involved in the new investment push. “We are excited about the potential of the partnership with Genocea to further our global health priorities,” Mundel said in a statement.