By Sarah Biber
Michael Tippie, a serial entrepreneur with a record of success, is heading up a new company to tackle Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and other persistent and hard to treat infections with novel prophylactic and therapeutic vaccines.
The startup, TomegaVax, is built around a breakthrough vaccine technology developed by a team of scientists, led by Louis Picker, at the Vaccine and Genome Therapy Institute (VGTI) at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU). Picker, Klaus Früh, Jay Nelson, and Scott Hansen of the VGTI, as well as Ulrich Koszinowski of the Max-von-Pettenkofer Institute at the Ludwig-Maximilian University founded the company in 2011. Klaus Früh serves as the president and chief scientific officer, and Tippie joined the team as CEO in 2014. Under Tippie’s leadership, TomegaVax has undertaken a $12 million equity financing campaign and hopes to begin phase I clinical trials as early as 2017.
Tippie only takes on companies that have the potential to save lives or significantly reduce human morbidity. With an estimated 35 million people worldwide currently infected with HIV, and an HIV-related death toll of 1.5 million in the past year alone, TomegaVax has the potential to greatly reduce human suffering.
A breakthrough vaccine platform with a plethora of promising disease applications
The missing link in fighting HIV infection has been the inability to stimulate a long-lived helper T cell response in the immune system. In 2013, Picker and colleagues shocked the scientific community by demonstrating (in publications in Science and Nature) that their vaccine could trigger a persistent and robust helper T cell response that protected monkeys infected with simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), the non-human primate version of HIV. The vaccine stopped the SIV infection from spreading and completely cleared the virus from 50 percent of the treated monkeys – effectively curing these animals.
The vaccine approach used by Picker and his team in the SIV studies utilized a common and mostly harmless virus called cytomegalovirus (CMV) that had been engineered to express SIV proteins. This modified CMV vaccine platform, the culmination of nearly 15 years of work and $100 million in grant funding, forms the heart of TomegaVax vaccine technologies. In addition to having the potential to prevent and cure HIV infections, the vaccine platform also holds promise for tackling a number of other diseases, including Hepatitis B, human papillomavirus (HPV), herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2), tuberculosis and malaria.
Building a sustainable company
However, as Tippie will be the first to acknowledge, a promising technology that has the potential to save and improve millions of lives is no guarantee of success.
The mission of TomegaVax is to “commercialize this novel platform of persistent T cell response and apply it to as many diseases as we can… and not die (in the process)!”
Michael Tippie, TomegaVax CEO
For the time being, Tippie’s strategy is to further develop global health related therapies in the university where they can continue to benefit from generous grant funding, such as the $25 million grant from the Gates Foundation which Louis Picker’s lab recently received. TomegaVax’s therapeutic HIV vaccine will continue to be developed with funding from an SBIR grant. Meanwhile, Tippie will focus the initial equity he is raising on developing therapeutic HPV, Hepatitis B and HSV-2 vaccines – treatments with large western markets. Tippie expects these therapeutic vaccines – currently in preclinical development – to be ready for clinical trials in early 2017.
Attracting the attention of big pharma
Initial funding for TomegaVax has come from $6.5 million in SBIR/STTR grants and $1 million research collaboration with a large pharma company. However, given the publicity generated by the work of Picker and his team and all of the promising applications of their vaccine platform, it is not surprising that a number of additional large pharma companies have also taken an interest. Tippie says, “they came to us.”
At present, negotiations are in the works with three additional large pharma companies about significant equity investments, all of which should help with the $12 million equity financing campaign that Tippie currently has underway.
All in all, things are looking up for TomegaVax. They have a promising technology, an experienced CEO at the helm, and the attention of big pharma. In addition, they will soon be branching out from the VGTI and moving into their own space at OTRADI. TomegaVax will face a crucial test as their treatments move into human trials. Health professionals, patients, and biotech insiders will be closely monitoring the outcomes.
Sarah Biber recently completed her Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology at Brandeis University and is a new resident of Portland, Oregon. She is currently an intern at the Technology Transfer and Business Development Office at OHSU.