January 15, 2018 / 12:11 AM / 21 days ago

Google venture arm backs UK universal flu vaccine company

(This version of the Jan. 15 story has been corrected to remove reference to first time that a universal flu vaccine has progressed beyond Phase I)

LONDON (Reuters) - A private British company developing a vaccine that could be the first in the world to fight all types of flu has raised 20 million pounds ($27 million) from investors including GV, the venture capital arm of Google parent Alphabet Inc.

Vaccitech, a spin-out founded by scientists at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, said on Monday the cash would help fund its vaccine through a two-year clinical trial involving more than 2,000 patients and expand other projects.

The group is also running clinical studies on an experimental shot to prevent Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and a therapeutic prostate cancer vaccine for use with an immunotherapy drug. Recent advances have made such vaccine-drug combinations a hot area of cancer research.

A so-called universal flu vaccine that elicits immunity against parts of the virus that do not change from year to year is a holy grail of medicine - but so far it has proved elusive.

Current flu vaccines have to be changed each year to match strains of virus circulating at the time. The hope is the new one-size-fits-all vaccine will provide better and longer-lasting protection.

Vaccitech’s new vaccine works by using proteins found in the core of the virus rather than those on its surface. Surface proteins stick out like pins from the virus and change all the time, while those in the core are stable.

It also stimulates T-cells rather than antibodies - an approach that has yet to convince existing flu vaccine manufacturers like Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline and CSL’s Seqirus.

Still, Vaccitech Chief Executive Tom Evans is confident the big players will come around if the current mid-stage clinical trial is a success and he will not have a problem in finding a partner to take the product into final-stage Phase III tests.

“If we get positive data that shows we can affect rates of hospitalization and illness with influenza then there is no question in my mind that a partner would take this on,” he told Reuters. “This could be a game-changer in a very competitive market.”

If all goes well, Vaccitech’s shot could potentially be ready for launch in 2023, although Evans said 2024 or 2025 might be more realistic. That means financial backers need to take a long view, especially as its other programs using T-cells to make vaccines against cancer, MERS, hepatitis B and human papillomavirus are also at an early stage.

“We wanted people who were willing to stick with us for a while and had bigger pockets for doing secondary rounds,” Evans said.

Vaccitech’s latest financing round was also supported by Sequoia China and Oxford Sciences Innovation.

($1 = 0.7339 pounds)

Reporting by Ben Hirschler; Editing by Mark Potter

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