Startup Atreca Joins With Gates Foundation to Speed Vaccine Discovery
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can become a drug, or scientists can create a vaccine using an antigen that will spur the body to manufacture that antibody.
The startup plans to survey the immune systems of multiple patients to amplify the clues in drug development.
Antibodies from people who get well fast would provide the best leads, Serafini proposes. “Here are five antigens on this bug, and these are the ones targeted by 85 percent of people who have a good outcome.”
What makes Atreca’s approach different from much of vaccine research is that it is “antigen-agnostic,” Serafini says. While many efforts in the field start out with a specific antigen that is already known to trigger an immune response, Atreca’s method may identify unknown or overlooked antigens that could be useful, he says.
Because of this, Atreca’s technology could be instrumental not only in combating infectious diseases, but also for developing products such as antibody-based cancer treatments or diagnostic tests for autoimmune disorders, Serafini says. But what drew the Gates Foundation’s eye was its potential for improving vaccine development. The Seattle foundation and the company are beginning their ongoing collaboration by focusing on malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and possibly other diseases in the first four years. The company anticipates that the foundation will contribute grant money for joint Atreca projects.
One possible tactic using the startup’s technology: Researchers could track the antibodies made by clinical trial participants after they receive a dose of an experimental vaccine. That could provide a scorecard on the effectiveness of the vaccine, through a tally of the antibodies known to be protective against the particular infection the vaccine is designed to prevent, Serafini says. An early look at the antibody population might provide quick clues to the outcomes of long trials.
Atreca will use the Gates Foundation’s $6 million investment to build its infrastructure and develop its technology, Serafini says. The startup, which now has about seven employees, is making some hires. It is also looking for other collaboration partners.
Serafini says potential partners may see advantages in a major feature of the “Immune Repertoire Capture’’ platform. It creates a route to manufacturing quantities of each antibody found in a patient scan, by identifying the DNA sequences that code for the each antibody.
The company envisions possible markets in four main business areas: therapeutic antibodies, vaccines, diagnostics, and reagents for research. Serafini says the technology platform may provide early commercial opportunities. But initial revenues from the sale of reagents, for example, would be used to finance R&D toward Atreca’s long-term ambitions—the development of new medical treatments.