Finding HIV’s Weak Spot, Scientists at Seattle’s Theraclone and San Diego’s Scripps See Opening for New Vaccine
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from IAVI, is looking to build on this discovery by running experiments to see if the broadly-neutralizing antibodies can have anti-viral activity in mice. Theraclone owns the intellectual property to turn these antibodies, called PG9 and PG16, into treatments for chronic HIV infection. IAVI owns the rights to use them to create vaccines, Fanning says. So even if while the venture capital crowd may not be interested in financing an AIDS vaccine business, the public health crowd certainly is.
In short, the vaccine work has global implications. Yet if Theraclone wants to truly move forward with an antibody-based treatment for HIV, it will certainly be an uphill battle. Various cocktails of antivirals have already basically turned HIV in wealthy countries from a death sentence into a chronic disease to be managed. The drugs have made fortunes for companies like Gilead Sciences and GlaxoSmithKline, and they are much cheaper to manufacture than an antibody.
But one drawback is these pills need to be taken diligently every day, as Fanning pointed out when we talked in April. Patients, some of whom are indigent or drug users, sometimes struggle to stick with this disciplined medication schedule for life. In doing this, they run the risk of letting the virus develop resistance to these treatments. So Theraclone hopes there’s room in the market for a genetically engineered drug that could be given intravenously under a doctor’s supervision once a month, or maybe even less frequently.
But more importantly, as Fanning said, this provides some high-profile evidence that Theraclone’s approach of looking for unusual antibodies produced by Mother Nature can have broader implications against infections beyond HIV. The company’s lead product candidate is an antibody that’s thought to have this same kind of sweeping potential against multiple strains of flu virus, which could come in handy in the case of a bird flu, swine flu, or some other kind of flu pandemic. Theraclone has some “compelling” data that this antibody can protect mice from a deadly strain of H5N1 “bird” flu, and this is the program generating much of the interest of potential partners, Fanning says.
The third Theraclone program is to make antibodies against cytomegalovirus (CMV) which doesn’t usually harm people, but can be life-threatening in people with weakened immune systems, like the elderly or people undergoing cancer chemotherapy.
While the folks at New York-based IAVI are sure to get a lot of attention, and Burton is sure to get a lot of the press attention, there are six named authors from Theraclone on the paper being published in Science. They are: Po-Ying Chan-Hui, Jennifer Mitcham, Steven Frey, Phillip Hammond, Ole Olson, and Matthew Moyle. Theraclone only has 21 employees, 18 of whom are scientists, and “about 80 percent” of them spent much of a six-month period on the antibody discovery effort for HIV in the past year, Fanning says. The work, and recognition of it, has certainly had a good effect on morale in what is otherwise a pretty difficult environment for a company trying to do some high-risk, high-reward science.
“This is a really big deal for us scientifically,” Fanning says. “For years, the question was whether these broadly neutralizing antibodies even exist. Now we know they exist, and we need to do more work to identify more of them. We really hope this will be the beginning of a flow of valuable antibodies against the virus.”