A Series D round of €33.2M ($37.4M) is to help the biotech Hookipa advance the clinical development of therapeutic vaccines for virus-based cancers, as well as a prophylactic vaccine for cytomegalovirus, which can infect patients undergoing organ transplants.
Currently at the preclinical stage, Hookipa’s therapeutic vaccines are designed to tackle cancers that are caused by infections of human papillomavirus, such as some types of head and neck cancer.
In addition, the Series D round is to help advance Hookipa’s lead program — a prophylactic vaccine for cytomegalovirus. This virus is carried by the majority of the population, but only tends to affect individuals with compromised immune systems, such as people receiving organ transplants from carriers of the virus. Hookipa is currently running a phase II trial of the vaccine in patients receiving kidney transplants from cytomegalovirus-positive donors.
Hookipa is also developing vaccines for hepatitis C and HIV in collaboration with the US company Gilead. Currently at the preclinical stage, Hookipa recently achieved its first milestone stage of the collaboration, developing 14 viral vectors that could become promising HIV vaccines in the future.
The company makes vaccines by engineering viruses called arenaviruses, which are able to trigger big immune reactions. The company engineers these arenaviruses to display antigens relevant to the condition it’s targeting, such as cancer or cytomegalovirus. These engineered antigens then can direct the immune system towards the cancer or the target virus.
Cancer vaccines are tricky to develop because it’s hard to find the correct antigen target in cancers, which are often caused by a variety of mutations and not just one. One example is a cancer vaccine phase III trial from the Danish company Bavarian Nordic, which was discontinued in 2017 after the company concluded that it wouldn’t succeed.
With this difficulty in making cancer vaccines, some biotechs have turned to a different approach: mRNA-based vaccines. One of these companies, CureVac is a German biotech working on mRNA-based vaccines, and collaborating with the pharma giant Eli Lilly. Another German company BioNTech, which has partnered with big companies like Genentech and Sanofi, is developing mRNA vaccines that can be personalized to patients according to the specific mutations that their cancer carries.
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