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Antibodies for HIV, Long Dismissed, Show Signs of Comeback at Seattle’s Theraclone

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look at blood or tissue samples from patients, and identify antibodies that are made by people’s immune systems against foreign invaders like viruses or bacteria. Mother Nature has evolved pretty efficient defenses against these infectious invaders, so the company’s philosophy is to follow these clues, and make genetically engineered copies of these antibodies as drugs. The company, founded in 2005, raised $29 million to continue developing the technology in March 2007 from Arch Venture Partners, Canaan Partners, HealthCare Ventures, Amgen Ventures, MPM Capital, and Alexandria Real Estate Equities.

Most scientists I know would shake their heads at the idea of antibodies as treatments for HIV, because the virus is supposed to be able to mutate and outflank these kind of treatments. I asked Fanning how he plans to combat that. The key is finding what he called “highly conserved epitopes” found across multiple strains of HIV. This is like finding the backbone of the virus, parts that are so essential that they just can’t be mutated.

If you can find these “highly conserved” regions of the virus, then these could also be useful targets for an HIV vaccine, although that’s the domain of IAVI, and not something Theraclone has a commercial interest in, Fanning says.

The hypothesis still has a lot to prove. The Theraclone approach hasn’t even shown an ability to neutralize HIV in animals, so it’s still a long way from its first test in people. This sort of work requires money, and Theraclone, like a lot of small biotech companies, can’t afford to fritter it away in a downturn. The company plans to continue hunting for a few more of these HIV neutralizing antibodies, and it hopes to find a big drugmaker to join it in a discovery collaboration, Fanning says.

Theraclone has about 22 employees now, after a small layoff, Fanning says. It has enough cash to last through 2010. If it can get enough financial backing, possibly from a partner, it envisions taking forward a combination of antibodies, a so-called “polyclonal” brew that could attack the HIV virus from a variety of angles. I tried to press Fanning on a lot of questions about timelines for development, when we can expect to see results from this HIV program, but he wasn’t going for it. “We’re excited,” he says. “But we’re still pretty early as a company.”

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