Juvaris BioTherapeutics Inc. is banking on a technology that it says could lead to therapeutic vaccines for diseases such as cancer and HIV, in addition to fighting bioterrorism threats such as anthrax.
Founded in 2002 in Pleasanton, Calif., the privately held company's name is based on the Latin word juva, meaning, "to help."
Leading the company is Martin Cleary, who was named chairman, CEO and president in early March. Most recently he served as president, CEO and a director at Genteric Inc.
"We're principally looking at activation of innate and specific immunity using a combination of lipids and DNA that tricks the body into thinking it's being invaded," said Jeff Fairman, who joined the company as director of research in February and is a scientific founder.
The other scientific founder, and on whose body of scientific research the technology rests primarily, is Steven Dow, formerly of the National Jewish Medical and Research Center and now an associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Colorado State University.
"It's a revolutionary technology," Cleary said. "What attracted me to the company is that there is a very wide range of applications and those applications have been demonstrated by preclinical data - some interesting, compelling and comprehensive data."
Cleary said there are "significant partnership opportunities," and overall, "the commercial opportunities are just enormous."
The scientific founders also worked together in the past - another factor underlying Cleary's "sense that this is going to be a success."
In the lipid-DNA complexes, the DNA does not code for protein. Rather, by combining with lipids, the DNA stimulates the immune system. Cleary said that, already, the complexes have shown positive results in animal studies, although the company is still 18 months to two years away from human testing.
"We have extensive preclinical data at this point," Cleary said.
Fairman said they also have found that antigens on the surface of the lipid-DNA complexes enables them to become vaccines by inducing specific CD8+ (killer) and CD4+ (helper) T-cell responses. The company said that immune responses induced using its method are more potent than responses by conventional approaches, including dendritic cell and viral-vectored vaccines.
Most of the data thus far has been in metastatic melanoma, Cleary said. The company also is pursuing collaborations in acute myelogenous leukemia and in cytomegalovirus, or infections that principally occur in lung and heart transplants. Another indication could be antibacterial adjuvants against a toxin, such as anthrax.
"This is a platform, and there are countless indications we could pursue," Cleary said.
In light of the potential use against anthrax, Juvaris is in conversations with military interests.
The company also expects to have a veterinary product within about 18 months to treat dogs with tumors.
"We'd like to split our financial need into two equal pieces: the sale of company stock and the other corporate partnerships," Cleary said. "We'd like to identify and pursue products on our own account, as well as work with corporate partners for their account in which we would share in the revenues."
Cleary, along with the scientific founders and some industry consultants, expect to raise about $400,000 in angel funding in the near future, followed by $4 million to $5 million in Series A funding in the next 90 days, he said. Juvaris expects the Series A financing to take the company through two and a half years.
By the end of March, the company will increase to four employees with the addition of an administrative officer and a chief scientific officer. At the end of the first year, the company expects to have 10 employees, 16 by the end of the second and 22 by the end of the third.
Prior to joining Genteric, Cleary was co-founder, president and CEO of CardioGene Therapeutics, a cardiovascular gene therapy company, from its inception in 1996 until its successful merger with Boston Scientific Corp. in 1998. From 1993 to 1994, he was president, CEO and a director of Theragen, also a gene therapy company, which he merged with GenVec Inc. From 1986 to 1993 he was group vice president and chief financial officer of Cytogen Corp., a biotech company focused on the development of cancer diagnostics and therapies using monoclonal antibodies.