West Coast Editor

The potential multiple-sclerosis application of Vaccinex Inc.'s preclinical antibody VX15 drew interest from Teva Pharmaceuticals Inc., which is taking part in an anticipated $25 million-plus financing round while entering a deal with Vaccinex to develop and sell the drug.

VX-15 also has been shown to block a target that promotes new blood vessels in tumors, independent of the popular VEGF pathway, and Teva's agreement brings an option to co-develop the compound in oncology after privately held Vaccinex finishes Phase I trials in that area.

"It's quite a unique target," said Raymond Watkins, vice president of operations for Rochester, N.Y.-based Vaccinex, adding that "a lot has been published" in scientific journals, though he declined to provide pointers. In MS, Watkins said, VX15 protects the vital myelin-producing cells while boosting the immune system.

"In both potential indications, obviously, we have supporting data, but it would be difficult to speculate on which [dataset] is more robust or compelling," he said.

Teva, of Jerusalem, and existing Vaccinex investor, Barbados-based Pan Atlantic Bank and Trust Ltd., are participating as lead investors in Vaccinex's third major financing round, and the VX15 deal brings undisclosed fees, development milestones and royalties in exchange for the license in MS and other indications.

VX15 emerged from Vaccinex's proprietary ActivMab discovery technology, which deploys two platforms. One is based on membrane-bound antibody expression, and the other employs secreted antibodies. The ActivMab approach uses a vaccinia virus-based vector to express the antibodies in mammalian cells, thereby gaining high levels of combinatorial diversity of immunoglobulin heavy and light chains.

Vaccinex has four antibodies in various stages of preclinical development. In October, the firm entered a licensing agreement with OPi SA, of Lyon, France, that granted worldwide rights to OPi for OPR-003, a fully human anti-interleukin-6 antibody, and to several alternate antibodies. Two antibodies - BVX10 for inflammation and BVX20 for oncology - are partnered with Biocon Ltd., of Bangalore, India, through a 2004 deal that included an equity investment in Vaccinex.

"I'd say we are probably 12 months away from the clinic" with one of the antibodies, Watkins told BioWorld Today, although he would not say which one.

About a year ago, Vaccinex entered a research collaboration with Berlin-based Schering AG (now Bayer Schering Pharma AG) to identify disease targets and possibly develop antibodies. Vaccinex got an undisclosed technology access fee and research funding, and became eligible for milestones and royalties.

Under the terms, Vaccinex could receive certain options to co-develop a selected cancer product after the initial research phase, but financial details were not disclosed. The Schering deal includes VX50 for oncology, still in the research stage, for which Schering holds a co-development option.

Also in research at Vaccinex are VX5 for autoimmune disease, C35 for breast cancer (the most advanced internal candidate) and VX50 for infectious disease. Although the company recognizes the classical approach of waiting for proof of concept to partner, Watkins said, Vaccinex would consider any possibilities. "We're opportunistic," he said.

Founded in 1997 on technology discovered at the University of Rochester, Vaccinex has filed more than 20 patent applications in the U.S. and abroad, three of which have been issued. The firm has 48 employees.