BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - Chiron Corp. is spinning out the DNA vaccines technology it acquired when it took over PowderJect Pharmaceuticals plc to a team of former PowderJect managers.

The new company, PowderMed Ltd., raised £20 million (US$34.5 million) in a private financing and will inherit a long-standing collaboration with GlaxoSmithKline plc, of London. PowderMed has rights to develop vaccines delivered by the needle-free powder injection technology around which PowderJect was formed, and the company starts its independent life with a portfolio of five preclinical DNA vaccines. The first, for lung cancer, is due to enter the clinic in the near future.

Chiron, of Emeryville, Calif., retains an undisclosed minority stake in PowderMed and has an option on U.S. marketing rights to a DNA vaccine for treating genital herpes. Other terms were not revealed.

Clive Dix, former head of PowderJect's research and development, led the spinout and will be CEO of PowderMed. He told BioWorld Today: "Chiron went through a decision-making process since acquiring PowderJect last year. I made advances to say we were keen to take on DNA vaccines if Chiron wanted to spin [them] out. We are absolutely delighted to launch PowderMed."

Concurrently, PowderMed renegotiated the collaboration with GSK, acquiring two GSK DNA vaccines programs in chronic hepatitis B and genital warts, and granting GSK additional licenses to use the powder injection technology in oncology.

About 30 staff members from Chiron Vaccines will join PowderMed, which will be based in the former PowderJect research facility in Oxford, UK.

John Lambert, president of Chiron Vaccines, said powder injection has potential as a vaccines delivery technique, but it did not fit with Chiron Vaccines' research and development program.

"We are pleased that its development will continue under the stewardship of PowderMed, with its experienced management team and first-class financial backers," he said.

The new investors include Schroder Ventures Life Sciences, Advent Venture Partners, Abingworth Management Ltd. and Oxford Bioscience Partners.

Although none of PowderMed's DNA vaccines are in the clinic yet, the technique of administering vaccines in a powdered form using gas-powered, needle-free injection has been validated in clinical trials of a prophylactic vaccine for hepatitis B and a powdered form of Fluvirin, Chiron's flu vaccine.

PowderMed has rights to the hepatitis B vaccine, but Dix said the company intends to concentrate on developing therapeutic DNA vaccines in chronic viral diseases and cancer. It also will look for partners and licensees to exploit other applications of the technology, including prophylactic vaccines.

"We do have the rights to develop prophylactic vaccines and the ability to do so, but we will look for partners in this area and concentrate internal resources on therapeutic vaccines," he said.

That decision is based on the belief that the main value of the technology is its ability to target antigen-presenting cells (APCs) in the epidermis. It has been shown that once inside the APCs, the DNA becomes transcriptionally active, producing the encoded protein, which when presented by the APCs to lymphocytes initiates a T-cell mediated immune response. "We believe this will translate into an effective immune response against disease," Dix said.

PowderMed also is developing a DNA vaccine to treat AIDS. The AIDS program is partnered to GSK, with GSK bearing the full costs of development, while the Phase I program for the lung cancer vaccine will be funded by PowderMed's partner, the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. Dix said that with the £20 million, PowderMed will take all five products through Phase II studies in the next three years.