VC Rick Klausner on the Future of Vaccines, and Why Dendreon is Only Scratching the Surface

8/19/09Follow @xconomy

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synthetic chemical compounds called adjuvants, which are used to boost the effectiveness of vaccines. These adjuvants, when combined with Baltimore’s precise delivery system, offer an opportunity to trigger highly potent, more specific immune responses in the body than vaccines from the past, Klausner says.

To be a little more specific, Immune Design hopes to custom design vaccines to interact with dendritic cells, which will tailor signals to any number of cell types, like helper T cells, memory T cells, killer T cells, or specific antibodies, Klausner says. It’s no longer the days of “close your eyes and hope” that a generalized immune response will kill the invader.

“The ability to dial it up really opened my eyes,” Klausner says.

Wait a minute, I said—what does he think about Seattle-based Dendreon (NASDAQ: DNDN)? That company made headlines earlier this year with its treatment designed to actively stimulate the immune system against prostate cancer cells—sometimes called a therapeutic cancer vaccine. The drug, sipuleucel-T (Provenge) showed an ability to help men live a median of four months longer with terminal prostate cancer than those on a placebo, with minimal side effects.

“We’re excited about Dendreon. It’s an effect, albeit a small effect,” Klausner says. “Dendreon is fantastic with what they’ve done.” But the next step in vaccines is still a difficult one, Klausner says. That will be to develop vaccines that can stimulate an even more powerful immune system reaction inside the body, without requiring the logistically-complicated process used by Dendreon. (The company withdraws blood cells from a patient, ships them to a manufacturing plant, incubates them with a genetically engineered marker of prostate cancer, and ships them back to the patient for re-infusion.)

Complex as its therapy may be, Dendreon has been pushing on its path for more than a decade and has arrived at the cusp of FDA approval. Immune Design only started its first clinical trial last year, and has years left to go before it can get that far, if ever. “It’s still early days,” Klausner says.

Besides vaccines, we talked about a few other items of interest to biotechies and innovation watchers. Here are tidbits left over in my notebook:

On life away in venture capital, away from politics:
“I’m enjoying it very much. I feel much closer to the science now. I’ve done my time in the political arena.”

On Seattle as a biotech hub:
“I really enjoyed Seattle. If not for the commute, I would have stayed. The talent is fantastic, there are great academic institutions. I’d like to see Seattle become a more vibrant hub. It’s an entrepreneurial place in the non-life sciences, in terms of engineering and IT. I’ve long thought that Seattle needs to find a way to link life sciences with other entrepreneurial activities.”

On an exciting company in Seattle not in his portfolio:
NeuroVista is a fascinating company. It combines biomedical research with very sophisticated computing and IT. Those are all incredible strengths of Seattle.”

On a field of science that’s not ready yet for venture capital:
“We had a two-day retreat not long ago on cancer stem cells. We started out excited, and I came out of it skeptical. What are they? What do they mean? The science isn’t clear enough.”

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