Kineta, the Seattle-based developer of drugs for autoimmune diseases, has won about half of a $13 million federal contract awarded to the University of Washington to create new compounds which might be used to boost the effectiveness of vaccines against HIV or flu.
The five-year contract from the National Institutes of Health is worth about $6.8 million to Kineta, a company with 11 employees, with the rest going to teams led by UW scientists Michael Gale Jr. and Michael Katze. The company’s job will be to identify and analyze new chemical compounds that could become vaccine boosters, called adjuvants, and test them in animals, while Gale’s lab will study the way they work, and Katze will pitch in with computational biology support.
The federal contract is a coup for a small company like Kineta, especially in a period when seed capital for new biotech companies is scarce. Kineta is led by a pair of scientists who worked together at Seattle-based Illumigen before it was acquired by Lexington, MA-based Cubist Pharmaceuticals two years ago in a deal that could be worth as much as $340 million over time. Kineta CEO Charles Magness and chief scientist Shawn Iadonato have started their new company with a strategy of taking relatively raw molecules at the animal testing stage, steering them through the value-building steps of early human trials, and then striking partnerships with larger companies that will find them less risky and more valuable.
The decision to pursue vaccines shouldn’t come as any surprise, because Kineta’s expertise is in immunology, and Gale and Katze were both among the company’s original scientific advisers. It has been pursuing the contract for about a year, Magness says.
“This certainly helps with our financial future because it’s a long-term fixed contract,” Magness says. “We’ll look to hire some people in the short term, but what it really represents is another long-term product opportunity for the company with secure funding.”
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