BioWorld International Correspondent

PARIS - Néovacs SA, which is developing therapeutic vaccines for the treatment of AIDS, cancer, auto-immune and allergic diseases, raised €13 million (US$17.9 million) in a funding round led by Novartis Venture Fund, an offshoot of the Basel, Switzerland-based pharmaceutical company.

The French company's largest shareholder, Truffle Venture, which invested €5 million in Néovacs in 2003, contributed €4 million to the latest funding round. Novartis Venture Fund will not be providing all of the remaining €9 million since, as Néovacs CEO Guy-Charles Fanneau de La Horie, told BioWorld International, the company is in advanced negotiations with other equity funds on both sides of the Atlantic that are interested in participating in this financing.

Néovacs, which was founded in 1993, previously had raised capital of €8 to €9 million, most of it since 2003, according to Fanneau de La Horie, who pointed out that the company also had received substantial amounts of public funding to finance its research activities.

Fanneau de la Horie added that Néovacs now had sufficient funding to last through to the end of 2009, although its burn rate is expected to increase sharply as the company takes more products into clinical development this year and next. After that, he said, "all options can be envisaged," including an IPO.

Néovacs' therapeutic vaccines are based on immunization technologies that act against human cytokines (kinoids) and immunosuppressive viral proteins (toxoids). In contrast to exogenous therapies that use monoclonal antibodies to neutralize cytokines and treat patients suffering from cytokine-related diseases, the vaccines induce a powerful, natural polyclonal antibody response in the patient.

What used to be Néovacs lead compound, TAT toxoid, an anti-HIV therapeutic vaccine, completed a Phase I/II clinical trial in 2005, but its future development is up in the air. Fanneau de La Horie explained that it was being co-developed with the Paris-based pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis, but that Néovacs had recovered all rights to the product at the end of 2006. "We are now thinking about what to do next," he said.

Three other products in preclinical development are due to enter the clinic over the next 18 months. The first is interferon alpha (IFN alpha) kinoid, a cytokinic immunogen that induces the production of neutralizing anti-interferon alpha antibodies. IFN alpha kinoid was tested in pilot clinical trials in which induction of neutralizing anti-IFN alpha antibodies was observed in some 200 HIV-infected patients, with good long-term tolerance. The compound also is being studied in mouse models of systemic lupus erythematosus, which also yielded positive results. A Phase I trial of IFN alpha kinoid is scheduled to get under way toward the end of this year or early in 2008.

The next two products in Néovacs' pipeline are kinoid vaccines. TNF alpha kinoid is being developed for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease and psoriasis, while the target pathologies for VEGF kinoid include certain tumors and age-related macular degeneration. Néovacs explains that an excess of TNF alpha leads to an inflammatory reaction in rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease, while VEGF stimulates the formation of blood vessels involved in tumor growth and metastasis.

Fanneau de La Horie said a Phase I trial of VEGF would begin in mid-2008 in cancer, while trials of TNF alpha kinoid would start in the second half of 2008 in one of the three possible indications. The choice has not been finalized.

"Néovacs' goal is to become the acknowledged leader in anti-cytokine therapeutic vaccines within the next two to three years," said the company's CEO.

Néovacs pointed out that several TNF alpha kinoid drugs are already on the market and that their combined sales are running at more than $10 billion a year, while sales of specific anti-VEGF drugs topped $2 billion in 2006 and are forecasted by analysts to reach more than $10 billion a year by 2010.