June 23, 2014
An Albuquerque startup may soon bring the world’s first vaccines for malaria and dengue to market with breakthrough technology from the University of New Mexico.
Agilvax Inc., which formed in 2011, closed this month on the first $2 million of a $5 million round of venture investment to further develop the technology, which allows researchers to rapidly identify and reproduce new vaccines for virtually any infectious disease.
The technology was built over nearly 15 years with about $5 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health, said Waneta Tuttle, founder and CEO of Southwest Medical Ventures, who licensed it from UNM and launched Agilvax to take it to market.
Southwest Medical and some partners have pumped about $1 million since 2011 into the company to begin building new vaccines for a number of diseases, including malaria, dengue, and human papilloma virus, or HPV, among others. The company is also developing new immunotherapies to fight chronic conditions, including cancer and metabolic and respiratory diseases.
“This technology provides the opportunity to produce multiple vaccine candidates for many conditions very rapidly,” Tuttle said. “It’s exciting because it potentially has such wide applications and promise.”
The new funding will allow the company to advance lab research on the vaccines now under development as the company works toward human trials, said Brian Birk of Sun Mountain Capital, an Agilvax investor and manager of New Mexico State Investment Council funding for local startups.
“The company has garnered significant interest from potential partners in the health-care industry, but the technology still needs additional lab development and results from clinical trials to prove its capabilities,” Birk said. “This money will provide the resources to meet those milestones.”
The technology originally was created by UNM microbiologist Bryce Chackerian and molecular geneticist Dave Peabody, who use “viruslike particles,” or VLPs, to generate immunological responses from the body to help identify the particles that provoke the most aggressive immune reactions as candidates for vaccines.
VLPs are basically viruses that are stripped of their infectious potential, said Stuart Rose, an investor in the company and founder of the Albuquerque Bioscience Center in Uptown, where Agilvax is based.
“Virus particles are like walnuts with a shell around them and guts on the inside that cause infection,” Rose said. “A viruslike particle is essentially the shell with the guts stripped out.”
The VLPs have no ability to infect humans, but they’re loaded with antigens that provoke the body’s immune response by generating antibodies to fight infection.
Peabody and Chackerian didn’t create VLPs, which have been around since the 1990s, but they developed a method whereby laboratory technicians run millions of VLPs with different antigen characteristics and compounds alongside antibodies to record the immune response.
The VLP that generates the most aggressive reaction becomes a vaccine candidate for the particular virus under study, said Agilvax President and CEO Dr. Federica Pericle.
“We can use the system to develop a vaccine against any virus,” Pericle said. “If it’s malaria, then we use a malaria antibody to let it respond to millions of generic VLPs. The antibody basically chooses the right VLP to make a vaccine.”
In addition, with Agilvax technology, lab technicians can isolate the specific VLP chosen as a vaccine candidate and rapidly reproduce it at much lower cost than other laboratories, Pericle said. And, apart from new vaccines, the technology also can be used to test the body’s immune response to chronic conditions such as cancer to develop new immunotherapies for fighting that and other diseases.
As Agilvax identifies potential vaccines and therapies, it will partner with pharmaceutical companies to develop them into products for market, Rose said.
“Human trials are the next step for various vaccines now under development,” Rose said. “We’ll need to raise more money for that, but the prospect of introducing new vaccines into the world to prevent things like malaria is extremely exciting.