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ITS eyes Big Pharma suitors as universal flu vaccine advances

Novartis has already made an investment
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A universal flu vaccine has long been the holy grail of immunization. Ending the need to predict flu strains and make a new product each year--coupled to pandemic protection--would rank as one of the biggest vaccine advances in decades. Yet such a vaccine has so far proved elusive.

U.K.-based Immune Targeting Systems (ITS) thinks it has the answer. ITS showed data from a Phase IIa trial of its candidate, Flunisyn, at the World Vaccine Congress this week. Unlike traditional flu vaccines, Flunisyn generates antigen-specific T cells to attack viruses and coordinate the immune response in the event of viral infection. By inducing immune responses against parts of the virus that remain constant from flu season to flu season, ITS aims to create a universal synthetic vaccine. The same vaccine could also offer protection against pandemic flu strains.

In the 120-person Phase IIa trial, Flunisyn induced T cell responses in the over-65s, a population poorly protected by current vaccines. Vaccines cut the risk of illness among the over-65s by just 9% this flu season, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention said in February. Helping this hard-to-immunize group could give Flunisyn an edge over more established traditional vaccines. The next step in efforts to show superiority gets under way this quarter in the form of a trial to assess the protection provided by the vaccine.

Positive data from the trial would bring ITS closer to its commercialization goal for Flunisyn. "The vaccine needs to be in the hands of a large pharmaceutical company," ITS Executive Chairman Ben Chen told FierceVaccines. Talks with interested parties are ongoing. ITS already has ties to one company that fits the bill, Novartis ($NVS). The Swiss pharma giant's venture fund was among the investors that coughed up £8.7 million ($13.3 million) in 2010 to fund the advancement of Flunisyn into the clinic.

- here's the release 

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