LONDON ¿ BioVex Ltd. raised #10 million (US$14.3 million) in a second-round funding to continue development of its herpes simplex virus (HSV) technology for the treatment of cancer and chronic infectious diseases.

CEO Gareth Beynon told BioWorld International, ¿This funding will allow us to do several things. We will advance two products to the clinic, expand our functional genomics capability, move to new laboratory facilities and increase the head count¿ from 25 to as many as 40.

The placement was led by Technomark Medical Ventures, with other new investors, including the Merlin Biosciences Fund LP, West Deutsche Landesbank Girozentrale and GeneChem Management of Montreal. The original backer, The Merlin Fund LP, also made a further investment.

BioVex was spun out of University College London in February 1999 and raised #3 million in its first round.

The company¿s lead product is OncoVEX, a modified HSV for treating solid tumors. It has a single gene deletion that renders the virus nonpathogenic to nontumor cells, while still being capable of growing in and killing tumor cells. In addition, it is engineered to provoke an antitumor immune response by the deletion of the HSV immune suppressor genes and the insertion of the gene for the immune stimulator, granulocyte macrophage-colony stimulating factor (GM-CSF).

¿This is a big step forward. This will be the first of a second generation of HSV into the clinic where the oncolytic properties of the virus are boosted with an anticancer gene,¿ Beynon said. BioVex already has presented preclinical data showing the combination is more potent than first-generation disabled HSV.

OncoVEX will enter a Phase I trial in breast cancer in the first half of 2002, and Beynon expects the data to be available within a year.

A second product, ImmunoVEX, is expected to enter Phase I in the treatment of malignant melanoma by the middle of 2002. This disabled HSV is engineered to deliver antigens to dendritic cells. Although HSV is very efficient at infecting dendritic cells, it also inactivates them. BioVex identified the HSV protein responsible for preventing dendritic cell activation and deleted it, thus stimulating and enhancing the immune response to target antigens.

BioVex will take the first OncoVEX and ImmunoVEX products to Phase II before licensing them. ¿These two product platforms are very broad, and we will add a lot of value if we have proof of principle. My view is that if, with ImmunoVEX, we get positive immune data, this will create a new vaccine platform.¿

Beynon said he would seek licenses in some areas, and do some things in house. The ImmunoVEX platform could also be applied to the treatment of chronic infectious diseases, but the company does not have the resources to develop this aspect at present.

The third product platform is NeuroVEX, for delivery of genes to nerve cells. The vector can carry up to six genes and gives long-term expression. BioVex is initially developing this as a functional genomics platform for the determination of gene function in the nervous system.

¿There is a bottleneck of genes of unknown function. We can make vectors containing any genes people want, using a proprietary cell line that enables you to grow very disabled vectors,¿ he said. Beynon said he believes this is potentially a stand-alone business, and will rapidly become self-financing. ¿We haven¿t aggressively marketed it, but several people have come to us, so once we have more lab space we will hire a business development manager.¿

The #10 million funding will last until the second quarter of 2003, when the company aims to complete an IPO. ¿We have not factored any deal money into this, and we also expect we will have revenue-generating services,¿ he said.

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