It’s rare to see an entrepreneur cheering for a direct rival, but that’s exactly what’s been happening over the last week or so in New York. It started on October 18, when shares of Boston-based Agenus (NASDAQ: AGEN) jumped 65 percent to $4.43 on news that a GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) malaria vaccine containing an ingredient that Agenus supplies performed well in a clinical trial in African children. That ingredient, called QS-21, is a chemical extracted from the soap bark tree, an evergreen native to Chile.
So who was cheering? That would be Jeffrey Gardner, CEO and co-founder of Adjuvance Technologies, an NYC startup that’s developing synthetic versions of QS-21, as alternatives to the sometimes scarce natural version that Agenus markets. The Glaxo/Agenus vaccine, he says, “is a good opportunity to prove QS-21 works. Would I prefer that Glaxo license QS-21 from us? Absolutely. But this is pivotal. It will prove the efficacy of QS-21 not just in humans, but in really young humans.”
Agenus’ stock has since settled back down to $2.71, but over a sushi lunch in Manhattan yesterday, Gardner’s enthusiasm for QS-21 was anything but muted. QS-21 is what’s known as an “adjuvant”—a substance that boosts the body’s immune response to a vaccine. The only adjuvants that have been approved by the FDA are aluminum salts or gels, and vaccine makers such as Glaxo have long been on the hunt for alternatives. About 15 drugs and vaccines containing Agenus’ QS-21 are currently in late-stage clinical trials. “People in pharma love QS-21, but it’s rare and not always easy to get,” says Gardner (pictured above). “That’s where we can add the most value.”
Adjuvance Technologies was born out of necessity at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer center in New York. Co-founder Philip Livingston, an attending physician at the hospital, was looking for adjuvants that would work in the cancer vaccines he was developing. “He tested literally everything under the sun,” says Gardner, himself a scientist who … Next Page »
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