* Swiss-based Okairos specialises in potent T-cell vaccines
* Technology uses deactivated chimpanzee viruses as vectors
* Programmes include Phase II hepatitis C, malaria vaccines
* Privately owned Okairos spun out from Merck in 2007
By Ben Hirschler
LONDON, May 29 GlaxoSmithKline is
betting on a new vaccine technology based on chimpanzee viruses
by acquiring Swiss-based Okairos for 250 million euros ($321
million) - the latest bolt-on biotech buy by a big drugmaker.
Britain's largest pharmaceuticals group said on Wednesday
that the privately owned company's know-how was expected to play
an important role in GSK's development of vaccines to both
prevent and treat diseases.
Okairos was spun out from Merck & Co in 2007 and has
laboratories in Rome and Naples, with headquarters in Basel.
It specialises in making vaccines that target the immune
system's CD8 T-cells - an approach that could yield preventative
vaccines against several intractable infectious diseases,
including hepatitis C, and also help fight cancer.
It does this by delivering genetic material using
deactivated chimpanzee-derived adenoviruses that produce a very
strong response against target diseases.
Adenoviruses, which cause the common cold, have long been
studied as a useful delivery vehicle for genetic material - but
they are so common that many people already have antibodies
Chimp viruses, which are not so easily detected by the
body's immune system, have an advantage since they can operate
for longer and therefore elicit a powerful T-cell response.
The Okairos technology has already been tested in clinical
studies involving more than 700 subjects, including mid-stage
Phase II programmes in hepatitis C and malaria.
A hepatitis C shot could be particularly promising
commercially, since there is currently no vaccine and treating
the condition with drugs has become a multibillion-dollar
Okairos also has early stage products for diseases such as
respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), tuberculosis, ebola and HIV.
NEW GENERATION OF VACCINES
The real attraction lies less in individual products than in
the company's technology platform, which GSK hopes to exploit
within its own vaccine development programmes.
As such, the deal represents a long-term investment in a
promising new scientific area, rather than one that will yield
immediate financial rewards.
Christophe Weber, GSK's head of vaccines, said the
acquisition of Okairos was "expected to contribute to the
development efforts for an exciting new generation of vaccines".
GSK's Chief Executive Andrew Witty said earlier this year he
had a "very low appetite" for acquisitions but, like many rivals
in the industry, his company is constantly looking for bolt-on
transactions to boost its pharmaceuticals, vaccines and consumer
Last November, for example, GSK agreed to spend $1 billion
to raise the stakes it holds in Indian and Nigerian consumer
Smaller British rival AstraZeneca has a more urgent
need for acquisitions, given its thin pipeline of new medicines
to replace those losing patent protection. It agreed on Tuesday
to pay up to $443 million for Omthera Pharmaceuticals,
a U.S.-based specialist in fish oil-derived medicine.
Okairos's venture capital investors include BioMedInvest,
the Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund, LSP, Novartis Venture
Funds and Versant Ventures.