Venture capitalists have given start-up biopharmaceuticalcompany Aviron a $15 million boost to develop live attenuatedvirus vaccines.

Founded in 1992, the Burlingame, Calif., company is focused ongenetically engineering vaccines against influenza, herpessimplex virus, respiratory syncytial virus, cytomegalovirus andvaricella zoster virus.

Investors in this initial private placement includedInstitutional Venture Partners (IVP), Accel Partners,Abingworth Management Ltd., ARCH Venture Fund, BEAAssociates, Brinson Partners and Advent International. Initialseed funding of $2.5 million was provided in 1992 by IVP,ARCH Development Corp. and a small group of biotechnologyinvestors.

The vaccines will be produced by deleting virulence proteins ina wild-type virus or modifying the proteins so they are notexpressed. Alternatively, Aviron researchers will make changesin the non-coding regions of the virus, altering its ability toreplicate. Aviron's chairman and chief executive officer, J.Leighton Read, explained that this process will engineer instable mutations, not just in point mutations.

Read, who is a co-founder of Affymax N.V., said the advantageof using live attenuated virus is that it contains all the antigensof the pathogen, whereas many subunit vaccines only include afew proteins and may therefore not achieve an adequateimmune response.

The founding scientists of Aviron are Peter Palese of the MountSinai School of Medicine in New York, Bernard Roizman of theUniversity of Chicago, and Richard Whitley of the University ofAlabama School of Medicine in Birmingham. Palese obtained apatent, now owned by Aviron, that covers the creation of anygenetically engineered influenza virus.

Aviron said it plans to develop an influenza vaccine that can beadministered by nasal spray and is more efficacious thancurrent injections. The company expects to begin preclinicalstudies in 1994 and clinicals in 1996. In addition, Aviron hasdone preclinical work using its ability to genetically engineerinfluenza virus to improve production of the inactivatedvaccine currently marketed by several manufacturers. Thecompany said it would be interested in licensing thetechnology.

In the area of herpes simplex virus, Aviron is developing a liveHSV-2 vaccine that can be used in uninfected children andyoung adults. The company expects to follow this with a HSV-1/HSV-2 bivalent vaccine for use in preadolescents. Avironprojects animal studies with the vaccine for 1994 and clinicalsfor 1996.

Aviron noted that Roizman recently discovered a protein madeby the virus that is essential for its replication in nerve cells."When a deletion is engineered into the gene encoding thisprotein, the virus is attenuated and it cannot produce therecurrent infections," Aviron said.

Read said Aviron may take some or all of its products tomarket and also expects to have significant partnerships formany of them.

Aviron's president and chief operating officer is Francis Cano,who was previously vice president and general manager ofLederle Praxis Biologics, the vaccine division of AmericanCyanamid. During his 20-year career at Lederle he worked tobring many vaccines to market.

The company's scientific advisory board includes Ann Arvin,Harry Greenberg and Edward Mocarski, all from StanfordUniversity School of Medicine; Elliott Kieff of HarvardUniversity; Joshua Lederberg, former president of RockefellerUniversity and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology orMedicine for his discovery of genetic recombination in bacteria;John Skehel, director of the National Institute of MedicalResearch (Mill Hill) and the World Health OrganizationInfluenza Surveillance Center in London; Max Wilhelm, recentlyretired from Ciba-Geigy; and the scientific founders.

-- Brenda Sandburg News Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.