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.”
The researchers will specifically look to activate the retinoic acid inducible gene I (RIG-I) pathway of the innate immune system. Gale’s lab has been working for years to better understand this pathway, which is thought to function as an “on/off” molecular switch for triggering innate immunity. This is the powerful side of the immune system that has evolved to protect people from all kinds of everyday pathogens we encounter every day through the skin, or the linings of the nose and mouth. The innate system is different from the adaptive immune system, in which the body develops antibodies made to seek and destroy specific invaders, like the latest strain of flu.
Ever since Kineta was founded a year ago, it has been looking at the RIG-I pathway, but for a different purpose—to build on the growing knowledge of the role of the RIG-I pathway in the innate immune system to make new antiviral drugs, not vaccines. But the progress from that other line of work helped the company secure the new NIH contract, Magness says. By making new vaccine adjuvants, Kineta hopes to speed up the immune response to a vaccine, make it last longer, or protect a greater number of people.
“We’re taking our platform in another direction,” Magness says. “It’s a testament that our platform is working.”
The NIH contracts, originally announced last month, are worth a total of $60 million and are going to researchers at six institutions around the country. The goal will be for the research teams to deliver new adjuvants, which can help make vaccines protect a greater percentage of people, and make them more potent in low doses—which could help public health officials inoculate a larger number of people without having to lean on companies to build expensive new vaccine factories.
Kineta is hopeful that the new adjuvants will have significant commercial potential, partly because they can be added to all kinds of vaccines, not just one. Kineta and UW are not the only places in Seattle setting their sights on adjuvants for vaccines. These compounds were one of the key value drivers at Seattle-based Corixa before it was acquired in 2005 by GlaxoSmithKline, and the Seattle-based Infectious Disease Research Institute is a world leader in the field, along with an IDRI-spinoff company called Immune Design.
“I’m confident that we’ll find new adjuvants and we’ll be able to put them on the commercial track,” Magness says. “If we’re successful, it will probably go into more than one vaccine.”
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