Brand-new Affinivax takes aim at Pfizer's Prevnar with next-gen conjugate vax tech

In conventional conjugate vaccines, proteins act as carriers for polysaccharides that induce an immune response. But what if those proteins could induce an immune response, too?

That's what new Cambridge, MA-based biotech Affinivax is aiming to find out. Armed with a $4 million investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and its Multiple Antigen Presenting System (MAPS) technology platform--developed by scientific founder Rick Malley at Boston Children's Hospital--the company is kick-starting a lead program for Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus) that it hopes can go beyond the vaccines currently on the market.

Right now, the "gold standard" is Pfizer's ($PFE) Prevnar 13, which induces a natural immune reponse to 13 of the most common pneumococcus strains, Affinivax CEO Steve Brugger told FierceVaccines. But "there are about 90 that we worry about," and "the hope is that we can elicit a much broader immune response" and potentially elicit a T-cell response that prevents transmission when both the polysaccharides and protein are working to achieve protection.

Affinivax scientific founder Rick Malley

Superseding Prevnar isn't a half-bad goal; the vaccine led the global market last year with $4.05 billion in sales, and EvaluatePharma predicts it will rake in $6.08 billion for Pfizer in 2020.

And the other potential advantage of a MAPS vaccine? "It can be streamlined from a production and manufacturing point of view," Brugger said. That efficiency could lead to reduced manufacturing costs, which then opens up the opportunity--"very much aligned" with the Gates Foundation and its goals--to introduce new vaccines into the fast-growing developing world.

"It's a unique opportunity we have, coming together with Gates," Brugger told FierceVaccines. "We can meet their mission, but also build a very attractive, viable company with a pipeline of vaccines."

Affinivax CEO Steve Brugger

The biotech is optimistic its technology will eventually enable it to target diseases that currently have no available vaccines. But for now, it's going up against a pathogen with known benchmarks and established animal models that Brugger says can "very quickly" yield a comparator.

"What I like about pneumococcus is that I see a very straight path to the clinic where we can not only validate the MAPS technology against very well-established competitors, but also fast-track the development of our lead candidate," he said. "Proof of concept is so important for young companies, and it's able to get us there in a very accelerated manner."

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